Say it ain't so, Lance! Sports confessionals have been a part of the scene ever since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. While I don't think anyone will speak these words to Lance Armstrong, as, legend has it, they did to Joe Jackson, Lance is still part of a long tradition in sport and celebrity. We enjoy the fall as much as we do the rise.
But Lance's performance, and it surely was that, with Oprah Winfrey on her still very obscure cable network, sets a new standard for media manipulation. I applauded Armstrong's unequivocal admission that he doped for all seven of his Tour de France wins and even felt sympathy for how difficult it was to explain it all to his 13-year old son. But very little else that he said rang true. The scary part, to use his word from the interview, is that he doesn't even see how hollow and manipulative it all sounded.
Let's start with the obvious fact that Lance is a total control freak. The interview was all on his terms - in Austin with an interviewer of his choosing, Oprah. Don't you wish it had been Mike Wallace in his prime! I thought Oprah did an adequate job, but she was clearly milking it for the dramatic, emotional impact. Beyond the very minimum admission that he had doped, very few facts came out. The rest was about how Lance "feels" about it all.
Maybe he didn't screen them, but he certainly felt comfortable refusing to answer questions about the specifics of how the doping happened and who facilitated and participated. He may be forced to answer those questions at some point, but that was not what he wanted to do now. Oprah didn't force the point.
The most incredible part for me was that Lance refused to own up to his part in creating an atmosphere on his Tour teams where doping was a requirement. How can he admit in the same interview that he is a driven, controlling bully, then say he was really just one of the riders on the team and everyone was making up their own mind about whether to dope? In Nixonian terms, it sounded like a "modified, limited hangout."
His attempts to apologize to the many people he terrorized over the years, for daring to imply that he doped, felt self-serving. He even couched the apologies in hypothetical terms. "If they are willing to listen, I will say I am sorry for what I have done." It felt more like someone checking off another step in a recovery program, all for his own benefit, rather than to truly repair the damage that was done. He seemed much more interested in soothing his own conscience.
At times it was just bizarre. He said he spoke with Betsy and Frankie Andreu for 40 minutes on the phone. He has, at various points, called Betsy " a crazy, lying bitch." He said he apologized for that, but then with a twinkle added, "But I told her I never said you were fat." Was he joking to break the tension in what was a very difficult conversation? Did he think "fat" was more offensive than "crazy," "lying" or "bitch?" Was he trying to merely set the record straight? All it did was make him look completely self-involved.
Oprah asked him a serious of questions as to whether he felt any guilt or remorse for the drug taking and the cheating. Lance's answer was always no, but adding that it was "scary" that he thought that way. The impression was that now he knows he should feel guilt , but it is very unclear whether he does feel guilt. He seemed much more moved by the loss of his sponsorship dollars than he did by the fact that he had lied to the world for that last 13 years. "That was $75 million gone," he said wistfully. I'm not sure who I feel less sorry for - Lance or Jamie Dimon getting his yearly salary cut in half to a mere $70 million.
Which leads to the big question. Why did he do this at all? What did he hope to accomplish? He described the interview as part of a process and mentioned that he is in therapy. In cycling parlance, this "process" is a beyond-category climb. Having admitted the minimum, does he now expect it all to go away? Maybe the media will get bored with it, but the courts won't. Jeffrey Toobin on CNN said that from the legal perspective, this was the worst thing he could have done. It will allow the lawyers in the many lawsuits he is a part of to pick away at the interview to prove the various points they are trying to make against him. He may never agree to testify before the United States Anti-Doping Agency, but he will be tied up in lawsuits for years.
However misguided it may have been, I think Lance believes he has accomplished something. The most genuine part of the interview was when he fought his emotions and spoke about what he told his son to say to people who bother him about his dad. "My dad said he was sorry," he told 13-year old Luke to say. That won't work very well with bullying teenagers. I hope he doesn't think it will fly with the rest of us. The longer he relies on an inadequate "I'm sorry," the longer any possible redemption will take. He flew too high, and his scorn for the truth and those who dared speak it was too brutal to forgive, maybe ever.
If he can repair his life with his children, good for him. The problem is his celebrity won't allow the damage control to stop there. He will be in this self-made purgatory for a long time.
For those of us who love to cycle, the effect will be minimal. We will continue to do our miles and our hills with little concern for Lance and his problems. My personal hope is that his confession leads to a purge of the sport of professional cycling. The month-long coverage of the Tour de France each summer is a beautiful event and the miscreants who have sullied its image shouldn't ruin that.
Grade: B (for Oprah); INC (for Lance)