Had Lance Armstrong nudged one of his Tour de France rivals over the edge of the Alpe d'Huez he would have likely received a less hostile response than he has in recent weeks for breaking a simple sports rule.
And we should remember that’s what the furore is essentially about: a professional cyclist took substances that were banned by sporting organisations, thereby breaking (repeatedly and with deception) a sporting rule.
Early last week, I listened to callers to a local radio station defending the decision by Nike to drop its sponsorship of Armstrong, while retaining the sponsorship of Tiger Woods. Callers were adamant that all Woods had done was cheat (repeatedly and with deception) on his wife.
Withdrawing Armstrong’s sponsorship was deemed right on the basis that no company would want to be associated with a drug cheat, but association with a cheating husband was considered no problem.
After all, Woods remains a wonderful golfer, golfers play the game in the “right spirit,” and how a person plays a game is the major indicator of their character.
It’s important to repeat that Woods remains a golfer after cheating on his wife. Michael Vick, another athlete currently sponsored by Nike, has returned to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles after going to jail for his part in an illegal dog-fighting ring.
Other athletes have raped, sexually assaulted, physically assaulted and committed acts of vehicular homicide without the hostile reaction Armstrong has received.
In 1996, the Australian sports ethicist Terry Roberts wrote a fantastic paper for Sport Science Review on cheating in sport.
In his review of sport philosophy literature, Roberts made two observations that are pertinent to the hysteria surrounding Armstrong. The first was that cheating in sport is now synonymous with drug-taking.
Roberts considered that there were no other rule violations in sport that carry the same moral judgement that an athlete is of bad character. I would add that, perhaps in modern times, forms of vilification and gambling against your own team may also carry this sanction.
Fortunately for Armstrong, he does not appear to have racially vilified other riders nor bet against his own success.
The second observation is directly related to the first. Roberts argued that a shift had occurred at some stage in the history of most sports whereby athletes no longer had a moral obligation to follow rules for “the good of the game”, but instead used a cost-benefit analysis towards rules. He described this orientation to sport in the following way:
If rules are understood by athletes, coaches, officials, and fans not to prohibit certain actions but simply to identify those for which there are associated penalties, then, by definition, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, for athletes to cheat.
Penalties become not the punishment for cheating, but simply the price for performing certain actions permitted and costed by the rules. The immoral connotations associated with wilful rule violation, what used to be called cheating, may have been replaced with perfectly acceptable and sensible cost accounting.
The easiest way to demonstrate this cost accounting is by case study. When the Australian rules footballers of the 1980s determined that the cost for deliberately slowing down the play-on style of their opponents after a mark or free kick was only a 15-metre penalty, and the benefit of slowing the opponent down far outweighed this cost, those footballers chose to deliberately break this rule and accept the penalty.
They did so with no regard to how the game should be played: the decision was about maximising their teams’ chances of winning. In 1988, the response by the organising body, the Victorian Football League, was to impose a harsher penalty.
It was not to train players to attempt to strictly observe the rules to maintain the integrity, or even the entertaining flow of the game.
The interesting thing is that athletes across the world are conditioned to approach rules in this way. Watch the NBA any night and you will see defenders deliberately break a rule, and foul to prevent any breakaway layup.
You will see players who are poor foul shooters routinely get hacked by opponents to send these poor shooters to the line.
And players who do not engage in these strategic rule violations are condemned by coaches and commentators alike as not being intelligent performers.
Why does this second consideration (that athletes apply a cost-benefit analysis towards rules) remain pertinent to the Armstrong case?
I am going to assume, despite the lack of a confession from Armstrong, that he knowingly engaged in illegal performance-enhancing techniques during his cycling career. Further, I am going to assume that he made the type of cost-benefit analysis that Roberts suggests is common to all deliberate rule violations in sport.
So Armstrong decides the benefits of using performance-enhancing methods, including increasing the potential for winning races and the prize money and endorsements that go with Tour victories, outweighed the costs of potential health damage and the types of bans imposed by WADA, USADA and the UCI at the time.
His accounting led him to decide that his doping was a rational choice to make.
To take this accounting analogy one step further, the cyclists who were supposedly coerced by Armstrong and his team into engaging in similar methods of doping also made a cost-benefit analysis that demonstrates why any allegation of coercion is utterly out of place here.
Coercion refers to threatening a person’s welfare interests to gain their compliance, and involves placing a person in a situation where he or she has no viable option but to comply. Given the generous welfare systems that most countries have, losing a professional cycling job is not a welfare interest.
It is important, particularly to those who have suffered real coercive conditions, that we don’t misrepresent pressure as coercion. Those other cyclists decided that the benefits of remaining associated with Armstrong’s team outweighed the costs of losing a spot on that team.
They may have been pressured to engage in practices that they felt guilty about, but they still engaged in those practices and the guilt became part of the cost-benefit analysis.
But now, organisations such as WADA and ASADA, and media commentators, are considering a retrospective change to the cost-benefit analysis.
So rather than punishing Armstrong in the way he would have been punished in the early- to mid-2000s, he has been banned from the sport for life.
Would Armstrong have made the decision to dope at the time if he had realised that the costs were this high? Moreover, is it fair to punish Armstrong with these penalties now, when the penalties were different at the time of his rule violation?
I suspect that very few of us would like our past choices and behaviours judged by today’s standards.