Tag Archives: drugs

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What Lance Armstrong, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, and Jesus, teach us about redemption…

Public figures fall hardest. Possibly because they fail more spectacularly, or at least in front of more people. Possibly because tall poppy syndrome means we’re waiting for the fall to happen, and ready to throw stones when it does… It’s always disappointing when someone you’ve pinned some sort of hopes on, or affiliated with your dreams, does wrong – but it’s oh so inevitable. Call it the selfish gene, call it original sin, call it human nature – we’re all wired to do the wrong thing, especially when we think we can get away with it, or the benefits outweigh the risks, and celebrities get more opportunities to do the wrong thing.

Armstrong Wordle
Image Credit: Wordle.net – a tag cloud featuring every article I link to in this post, minus “Lance” and “Armstrong”

Sometimes doing the wrong thing is even written off as the cost of success. Our sporting contests have penalties built in, and for people playing at a high level, half the battle is making snap decisions about whether or not fouling your opponent is a better decision than letting them past. Degrees of misbehaviour carry greater penalties. Diving in football is an example of people trying to game the system in the other direction. It too gets punished. It’s part of the economics of sport. So much that a Formula One team was able to tax deduct its 40 million euro fine for spying on an opposing team.

Enter Lance Armstrong. Sport’s current whipping boy. His story represents the human, and now economic, cost of cheating, and the price of a win at all cost pursuit of sporting success. He’s been abandoned by sponsors. Abandoned by his sport. Abandoned by some fans. He’s lost his titles. He’s lost the respect of most cycling fans. It looks likely he’ll lose his prize money, endorsement money, and interest. Part of the problem with Armstrong is that he’s, by the power of his self-proclaimed narrative, set himself up as a symbol of hope. And worse a role model. A position most athletes shouldn’t occupy. This means he’s falling from a greater height than most.


Credit: ABC

His brazen cheating – conducted by an incredibly complex operation, and carried out with horrifically narcissistic and vindictive attacks on anybody who dared speak out – was one thing, and arguably, according to this Grantland piece, relatively easy to cop, given that most people don’t really care about cycling:

Lance Armstrong became one of the two or three most transcendent American sports stars of his generation despite the fact that hardly anyone in America cares at all about his particular sport. The ratio of passionate Lance Armstrong fans to people who have ever actually watched Lance Armstrong race except for maybe a few minutes during this one Tour de France is just crazily out of whack.

Grantland points out that Armstrong’s charity work, and the cancer-triumphing narrative, were what made him a hero:

“…it was his story that made him a superstar: his comeback from near-fatal cancer, the hope he offered other cancer patients, his charitable work through the Livestrong Foundation, the yellow bracelets, the sense of larger purpose. Cycling wasn’t the cause here so much as the arbitrary venue in which the cause could prove itself noteworthy…

…That’s what’s so tragic about what turned out to be Armstrong’s charlatanism. He had to cheat to win. But he had to win primarily to validate the narrative, not because the consumers of the narrative liked watching him do it. One of the reasons he could be so inspiring, in other words, was that for all practical purposes he barely existed at all.”

It seems unlikely that this narrative and charity work will save his image, though someone appears to be advising him that it might (and some utilitarians seem to suggest the ends of fighting cancer justify any means). Armstrong appears willing to ride out the storm – pointing to his good deeds. But it’s not likely to work. Interestingly, you could make the case that an interview Armstrong gave seven years ago was paving the way for a guilty verdict and his current plea to leave his charity out of the muck. In doublespeak, the interview given by a guy who is, more than likely, guilty, is a pre-emptive damage-controlling non-disclosure.

He said his sponsors and charity would disappear if he was caught.

“All of them. And the faith of all the cancer survivors around the world … And don’t think for a second I don’t understand that. It’s not about money for me. Everything. It’s also about the faith that people have put in me over the years. So all of that would be erased.”

And his sponsors have. The impact on his charity is yet to be determined. Some people, the people he has helped over the years, are still in his corner.

But I also can’t stop noticing that many of the people still defending him — not denying that he cheated, just knowingly rooting for him anyway — are cancer survivors or the family members of cancer patients. Robert Lipsyte wrote about this for The New Republic, how the thought of Armstrong helped get him through chemotherapy. And once you start thinking along those lines, that he meant that much to people, that it’s not a trivial thing to be a hero of feeling, this becomes one of those problems you can’t think your way outside.

This has been true in my observations of discussions of Armstrong amongst my friends and contacts on social media.

Grantland has an interesting reminder for those of us who follow Jesus… it should change how we think about stories like this.

Or maybe not; but it’s always hard to remember that there were victims in cases like this, and what you do remember — hypocrisy and rule-breaking — doesn’t always look so bad a few years down the line. How you feel about that probably depends on what you think heroism means in America, and whether you picture Halloween or Jesus when you hear that the dead are rising from their graves.

This is profoundly true – knowing that all people do the wrong thing, and that this is part of being human – and the foundation of our need for redemption through Jesus – means it’s pretty hard to throw stones at Lance, because, there but for the grace of God, and the cycling ability, go we.

But if there’s one thing we seem to like more than a public scandal, it’s a public story of redemption. People are already making interesting links between the narrative arcs of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods (and here), and Lance Armstrong and Mike Tyson, especially because Tyson is in the news because he’s coming to Australia on a charity tour.

Mike Tyson has had a complete rebrand – he doesn’t eat meat, or ears, any more. He’s apologised for stuff (but apparently still denies he committed the crime he was jailed for). He appears in movies. And now he’s raising money for indigenous communities in Australia – which some people, as they do in Armstrong’s case, suggest covers over a multitude of sins. I don’t think charity work as PR penance works. Unless it’s built on an acknowledgment of wrongdoing after the fact. And even then. You can’t rely on the charitable stuff you were doing while you were cheating to excuse your cheating. That Armstrong could only have the profile he has, and the charitable impact he has, because of the drugs he took, doesn’t really justify the taking of drugs, or the empire of deception built up around it. Tyson “redeemed” his brand, in the eyes of many, through an apology.

Tiger Woods apologised, and now seems to be working pretty hard to win back public affections by doing what he does best, golf, it is hard to go past a compelling “redemption narrative.” Story after story about sports people who’ve behaved badly use this r-word. In many cases they focus on on-field performance, and express a desire for unparalleled talent to have the opportunity to shine once more – almost as if the tragedy is the furore, not the act. This isn’t really possible in Armstrong’s case – because his talent is forever tainted – which may even make his redemption impossible in some eyes.

But we want an apology.

Most of us are realistic about the human condition, and aware that celebrity doesn’t do away with humanity. So we’re prepared to cut people a fair bit of slack. If only they’d apologise. A bit of hard work atoning for your wrongdoing is nice, but apparently redemption requires contrition, not just sporting excellence.

And this idea is Biblical (from Psalm 51)… and one of those times where I think what works for one’s relationship with God, transfers to how one relates to the public (a reverse of plundering gold from the Egyptians if you will).

16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.”

This is part of one of the biggest redemption narratives of all time – David writes the Psalm after being confronted by the prophet Nathan about his adultery. Arguably only Paul undergoes a bigger character rebrand in the Bible. It might sound like a contrite heart is some sort of meritorious act that immediately produces a desired result – but there’s nothing worse, when salvaging a brand, than inauthentic contrition – like a non-apology apology.

Calvin’s commentary on Psalms gives a similar take on these verses… which I like.

“The man of broken spirit is one who has been emptied of all vain-glorious confidence, and brought to acknowledge that he is nothing. The contrite heart abjures the idea of merit, and has no dealings with God upon the principle of exchange.”

Genuine contrition isn’t produced to secure a result – because it can’t. It’s about admitting that you’re no longer in control of the result – it’s about asking for mercy. And this only really works if you genuinely realise you’ve done the wrong thing. It’s not a lever you pull to secure an outcome… as much as brand managers and spinners want to manipulate public goodwill with carefully architectured apologies.

The big debate surrounding Armstrong, at the moment, is not whether his good deeds off the track are enough to cover the sins on it, but whether he’ll man up and admit he did wrong, and make the apology people seem to feel entitled to. PR expert after PR expert is trotting out this same advice (this one includes “six apology basics”), though some people think the moment has passed. One cycling company is assuming the inevitability of Armstrong’s redemption, and has circumvented the process by offering him a job, which is, in itself, a PR exercise for that company. The media agrees.

“Only one way out of this mess, Lance Armstrong. America can love a fallen hero, but only if he admits the fall — and apologizes for lying about it. Do those two things, Lance Armstrong, and we’ll love you again.

At the moment? We’re disgusted.

It’s not the cheating, because lots of world-class athletes cheat. We’ve come to grips with that generality, and particularly with the notion that cycling is the dirtiest sport of them all. That’s what we think, and even if we’re wrong, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, people truly believe cycling is dirty — as in, everyone is dirty. You can’t get to the top of that sport without cheating. History has shown us that.”

If Armstrong wants to recover his brand, or salvage anything from this situation, rather than relying on his past good works, or even future good works, it seems, from the punditry, that he needs to be personally convicted that he’s done the wrong thing – he needs to admit it, and he needs to ask for mercy. The principle is the same whether your’re trying to salvage your multi-million dollar personal brand, or, more importantly, turning to God for true redemption. The best news for Christians is that the hard work atoning for our wrongdoings has been done for us, by Jesus.

With every drug saga in cycling come the enlightened souls who suggest drugs should just be legalised, and drug companies should become sponsors. Or people who write off the cheating as the cost of doing business. Or moral failings as a human touch that we’re not in a position to judge. And in a sense, both responses are legitimate intellectual responses to the human condition. There are plenty who want to insist that Armstrong’s charity work means he’s a good guy, no matter how deep down.

The complexity of this moral situation is heightened by his refusal to confess. It leaves the situation ambiguous. It’s interesting that contrition and repentance – not working hard to atone for what you did wrong (though that comes after) is so universally seen as the precondition for redemption – because in one sense, that’s the Christian gospel being mirrored in the world. Lance isn’t a role model. He isn’t the messiah (there’s even some question about the value his charity actually produces for fighting cancer – it seems more focused on style than substance (ie research into a cure)). He’s also a very naughty boy. But he’s human. Like us. He does wrong. Like me. He cheats like me – just on a bigger stage with a bigger scale. He lies, like me – it’s just that more people listen to him. He needs redemption like me – not just for his career, but for himself. But I’m thankful that someone paid for my wrongdoings – of which there are many, though they’re seen by a much smaller number of people. Lance and I are the same though – because everything we do is seen by God, and real redemption, for both of us, doesn’t come from apologising and being contrite – though that’s a start – real redemption comes from turning to the guy who didn’t stuff up, the real role model, the guy who did the atoning for what we did wrong.

Lance Armstrong doesn’t need a superficial PR rebrand driven by false contrition and a long road to redemption. He doesn’t need a long record of doing good stuff for other people. He needs Jesus. Like all of us.

On a role

An individual has many “roles” – only on stage is one completely defined by a particular “role”.

The idea that sports people are “role models” is a false premise being pushed onto society by the media.

It’s a good emotionally manipulative line to run – and no doubt it will sell papers. But the fallacy that Andrew Johns, and the unnamed AFL players from Hawthorn, have let society down because they are “role models” is wrong.

Aspiring sports stars may use them as archetypal sports models – ie I would love to be able to play football like Andrew Johns – and they could arguably be great models for drugtakers (a professional sports career seems to be one legal avenue for earning the money required to fund a recreational drug habit) but no one intelligent styles their life on these sportsmen.

Or at least, no one should.

It’s much more likely that people style themselves on elements of a number of influences – in particular parents. If people are looking to famous sportspeople for inspiration in every field (not just on the field) – then our society has a massive problem.

The NRL and AFL could easily let themselves off the PR hook when it comes to their player’s indiscretions by claiming no responsibility for their employee’s private lives. Some players may choose to act as role models through engaging in community activities and the like. But the umbrella bodies in each sport are perpetuating the problem by continuing to tout their stars as being allround good guys who everyone should aspire to.

Statistically speaking the chances of becoming a professional sportsperson are pretty slim – the number of children who genuinely have aspirations of becoming the next Andrew Johns will no doubt be disproportionate. But parents can not abdicate their basic responsibilities for the upbringing and character of their children to some pseudo nanny-state society where sports stars are surrogate parents. That’s bollocks.

The only reason that sports stars should be held accountable for their drug taking is the effect it must surely have on their ability to perform – and their long term health and wellbeing – which is the club’s responsibility.

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No Comment

As an experienced PR person (I feel one year on the job and a 5 year degree makes me an “expert”) there’s one piece of wisdom I’d like to pass on to anyone out there who has anything to do with the media. NEVER*, NEVER**, ever say “no comment.” It’s poor media management, it takes away an opportunity to express your point of view in the public sphere and it just makes you look guilty. Don’t do it. Ever. Someone should pass this advice on to Sylvester Stallone and his management company. He copped a hiding in the media after he was busted trying to import 48 vials of illegal “stay young and fit” growth hormones on a promotional visit to Australia – eager to avoid uncomfortable questions in the future the Stallone camp has banned Australian journalists from attending his press conferences. The ultimate “no comment” – as a result every major Australian newspaper ran a story about his poor sportsmanship and recalcitrance. The rules for dealing with the media are (for those of you planning on ever being in front of a camera, or talking to a journalist).

1. Figure out your key message and stick to is – say nothing else if need be, all the reporter is looking for is a quote to write a story around – if you only say one thing that’s the only thing they’ll quote.
2. Never say no comment – if you don’t want to comment come up with a standard line explaining you won’t comment at this point as you’re waiting for more information – by the time that information comes the story should be well and truly out of the news cycle.
3. Don’t lie to the journalist.
4. Don’t try to unsay something you’ve said – that puts a big flashing neon sign over the statement – corrections are ok, flat out denials not so good.
5. Don’t get angry with what’s said. K-Rudd apparently needs to learn this one – what’s printed is printed, you can’t unprint something. Nor should you try to put pressure on a journalist – that breeds contempt and that’s bad. K-Rudd is looking into his media management strategy.
6. Don’t crack wise with journalists – if you say something that can potentially be taken out of context it probably will be. Only say what you want to be quoted.

Funnily enough, I started writing this entry yesterday just before I had to say “no comment” to a journalist – although he was a uni student trying to break a story we didn’t want broken so I’m not overly concerned about the far reaching implications of that – and I didn’t “no comment” him – I just didn’t return his calls.

*capitalised to indicate importance.
**repeated to indicate importance.

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Attack of the clones

Finally. The opportunity I’ve been waiting for. I can finally play God. I have a terrible illness. An illness that leads me to believe that I’m half man, half shark – now, thanks to the wonders of therapeutic cloning, I’ll be able to grow the shark fin I’ve always imagined gracing my back. Surely therapeutic cloning stretches to include therapy for “mental” illness – in fact the line probably extends much further – you have a bit of a cold at the moment sir, no problem, here’s a new lung – buy now and we’ll throw in an extra kidney for free. The real concern I have as a result of the passing of the bill is an economic concern. Legalised organ harvesting will kill the black market organ trade. Organ harvesting is big business in the South American slums. Those economies rely on the export dollars generated by criminals and spent in local communities – it’s the ma and pa operators who are going to cop this on the chin – but at least they’ll be able to go out and get themselves a new chin if the blow is too heavy.
Medical tourism is the next predicted boom market – if Australia becomes a one stop shop for vital organs we’ll be right at the heart* of this emerging market. The gall** of those people who complain about this revolutionary new legislation. Their shortsightedness is astounding. We will be at the forefront with our willingness to travel into ethical grey areas. I hear Amsterdam has the drug travel market cornered – why not legalise drugs and turn Nimbin into a tourism hub. Why stop at pot – we could be top spot (I only chose those words because they’re all anagrams of the letters T, O, P, and S) for crystal methamphetamine (ice, ice baby…) , then our middle class users could kill all their organ functionality and invest their left over cash into new organs. The possibilities are endless. What a Pandora’s box our wonderful polititians have opened. Realms upon realms of possibilities (or for the paper users among us – reams upon reams – again the possibilities are almost endless – limited only by the number of pieces of paper).

* Pun intended
** and again

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So I was wrong…

Apparently it happens some times. Scooter and CB both took great pleasure pointing out that aspirin does not in fact thin the blood as I may have suggested in an earlier comment. It seems that’s a simplification of the chemical process involved. Aspirin actually prevents the blood coagulating as freely or something like that – meaning rather than thinning it just stops it thickening. Have I got that right pharmacy people (Mel I guess since you’ve got that pharmacy degree you keep telling us about you might even be able to answer this question).

I would like to point out three extra things tonight – firstly, lists are cool. Secondly, free food is cool, except when it’s lukewarm, then it’s too cool. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve started a second blog.

Why does anyone need a second blog I hear you ask? Well, let me tell you.
Once upon a time I went to a big university called QUT. To cut a potentially long story short I met a guy there with a very long surname that not many people can spell. His first name is Phil. His last name is Enchelmaier. It has several vowels. More vowels than any other surname I can think of in the time it took me to type this sentence – which is to say not very long at all. Phil and I were kindred spirits (We had lots in common). A common love for ourselves. A common love for funny things. A common belief that we were capable of achieving funniness. And a common willingness to look stupid in front of large groups of people. Now that we’ve finished uni, I’m missing all the avenues through which, or by which, we used (once) to, and used (utilised) to embarrass ourselves (I think I just realised there’s a pun in the Dandy Warhols song “We used to be friends”).

But I digress, you can find samples of our work – including the scripts for the infamous OCC project. I can also promise new works of a quality rarely seen before – including a soon to be released musical collaboration created in a single day.

You can find our amazing new blog RIGHT HERE.

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l’esprit d’escalier [the perfect witty response]

I was reading the Sydney Morning Herald online today for my fix of culture and intellectual stimulation (not that those things are in short supply up here but News Limited Papers in general are pretty horrible) and I came across an interesting interview with Tim Freedman the singer from the Whitlams. Tim Freedman is one of my favourite Australian songwriters. He’s responsible for some of the greatest song lyrics ever written, eg “she was one in a million, so there’s five more just in New South Wales” from Up Against the Wall. He’s also one of the worst anti-drug spokesmen in the history of the “say no to drugs” campaign. I remember seeing a TV special where he basically told people the only way they were going to learn about the effects of drugs was to take them. Thanks Tim. Anyway, having firmly established his credibility as a role model I’m now going to direct you to the article here. He makes an interesting point about conversation – and missed conversational opportunities – particularly l’esprit d’escalier. To sum it up for people too lazy to click a link – he is haunted by missed opportunities. He’ll even call a journalist who interviews him two weeks later to amend his answers. I’m wondering if this is just a luxury for the rich and famous. Can we all buy an opportunity to add to past conversations? As someone who often misses great opportunities for witty (or even non-witty but effective) responses – only to think of them at some later date – I think it would be of some benefit to bring in a system where amendments to a conversation can be made in another time and another place. I propose to make this the time and the place for such comments. If you feel like you could have, or should have responded to me, or anyone else, in a more witty or appropriate manner then post a comment.

In other, less Whitlam related news…

I spent Friday night on Magnetic Island with a Sunday Mail freelance writer and her husband. If you’re ever on Magnetic Island I can now highly recommend the barefoot: food, art, wine restaurant. They did the best steak I’ve eaten in a long, long time.

I now have internet at home – if you desperately want to see how I’m going and are too cheap to call me and don’t like reading through the random stuff on my blog you can now find me on MSN at nathanc32hotmail.com you need to put the @ symbol in there – that’s to ward off the evil spam harvesters.