During the last few weeks, water cooler conversations in PR and brand agencies have swirled over Lance Armstrongs confession. Did he make the right decision? Why did he confess? What did he have to gain (or lose)? What is the real motivation behind the confession? What will it cost him? And more.
As a PR practitioner, I always advise clients to take the path of honesty. The public can be very forgiving when confessions are quick and contrite, minimizing your long-term risk, liability and cost. Perpetuate a lie, and it will catch up with you. Mark my words, the more you spin, the messier it gets. This is the case with Armstrong.
The confession came under a cloud of whats in it for me? speculation, with many believing he confessed with the hope of one day being able to compete again. Im not sure its that simple, but regardless of his motivation, the public fallout will likely have a far-reaching impact on professional sports.
During the Oprah Winfrey interview, Armstrong defined himself as a cheater, control-freak and a bully a man deeply flawed. Whether you find yourself feeling sorry for him or you simply hate him for all his lies and deceit, consider for a moment what this confession may have done for elite sports fueled by our unrealistic expectation of these superheroes.
Its the way the game was played, and I was playing the game, Armstrong said. True as the statement may be, its the equivalent of your seventh-grader admitting to you, Yes, I cheated on that test, but everyone was doing it, so it was fair. Like that seventh-grader whose actions result in a zero grade, Armstrongs wins including his 2000 Olympic bronze medal have all been rescinded.
But hes not alone in his suffering. Earlier this month, the Baseball Writers Association of America, for the first time since 1996, voted no one into the Hall of Fame. The ballot featured a strong list of contenders, but many of their achievements were marred by reports that they had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
For elite athletes, its not good enough to be excellent. Being excellent wont earn sponsors, medals or public accolades. These athletes want to be remarkable, unique, incomparable, extraordinary. Dont you?
We live in a win at all costs culture that celebrates heroes, tries hard to control every outcome, and actively seeks every possible advantage. We love underdog stories and seeing records broken. Thats why we loved Lance. And its also why we hated him after learning it was all a lie.
From our comfortable couches (bags of potato chips in hand), we watched the confession and sat in judgment over a man caught up in a culture we created.
Its hard to know Armstrongs true motivation in coming clean. Perhaps it had to do with more personal ambition or simply wanting to get out from underneath the lie that had caught up with him. I believe there was a little of everything. I hope it was because he finally wanted to make things right and contribute to changing the drug culture of elite sports such as cycling.
Armstrongs web of lies may cost him everything, and he will, as he said to Oprah, spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people for the rest of my life. But I wonder, on some level, if we shouldnt be the ones apologizing too?
Jeanette Duwe, owner of Duwe Public Relations and a former journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org