By now many of you have read Sally Jenkins article on Lance Armstrong in the Washington Post. As most of you also know, Ms. Jenkins co-wrote, "It's Not About the Bike," with Armstrong, one of two books they authored together.
In her opinion piece Jenkins employs a recurring motif: "Maybe I'm not angry at Lance because..."
Ms. Jenkins is not angry at Lance, maybe because:
- "He was like all the other cyclists who sought a medical advantage in riding up the faces of mountain;"
- "This is about a culture that Lance was a part of;"
- "I've decided that the smoldering wreckage of the bonfire that burned down Big Tex was wildly out of proportion to the offense;"
- "I wonder why putting your own blood back into your body is the crime of the century;"
- "All of the people associated with him are responsible for themselves and their choices, just as I was;"
- "Shouldn't an organization [USADA] with the initials U.S. in front of it have to follow due process?"
- "I've never believed there was a more innocent sporting past;"
- "...who put his money and incalculable amounts of time where his mouth was, raising $500 million for research and donating $7 million of his own fortune.. He always, always kept his head on straight about cancer."
Ms. Jenkins starts her piece out this way: "I like Lance Armstrong, have always liked him." Ms. Jenkins — if I might speak to you directly — me too. I have known Lance for 23 years as of this writing and my intersection with him, in the early years, was not insignificant. Lance is eminently likeable. He is, in the main, a good man.
In fact, I do not disagree with anything you wrote in your article, except for minor inaccuracies others are likely to seize on, for example, the money he's helped raise for cancer has chiefly not been for research. (As I noted when I traveled to the Lance Armstrong Foundation earlier this year, I find this almost a distinction without a difference.)
My issue with what you wrote is that you don't acknowledge the central player in the Lance Armstrong saga. It's not the person who introduced Lance to doping, whoever he was. It's not his coach, his doctor, his mentor; it's not Travis Tygart, or anyone at USADA, WADA, or any governing body.
It's not a person at all. The central figure is the sport. The activity. That thing we do. And if there is one thing of which I've grown tired it's the treating of these activities as if they are trivial. They are not.
Let me place my thesis in terms easy to understand. You're a journalist. There are rules associated with good journalism. The very organization for whom you work gains and holds its equity through the gentleman's agreement in which we all enter that fabrication and plagiarizing (to name just two rules) do not find their way into the Post's pages. This is why my own day starts with a reading of the Post — because you have standards; because they are immutable; because they are not negotiable.
These rules are adhered to at the Post even though the bending of these rules exist; though their bending gives other journalists an unfair advantage; in spite of the fact that breaking these rules is prevalent. These rules are adhered to even though it's big business; it's a tough industry; it's competitive; and even though it seems like it's a losing battle as seen against today's landscape of each man's owned facts.
Many at the Post agree that Fareed Zakaria is a good man and, net-net, a value to the Post and its readers. Count me among them. I'm sure many at the Post might say of him, "I like Fareed Zakaria, have always liked him." But I did not see anyone, after Zakaria's plagiarizing, write, "Maybe I'm not angry at Fareed because..." Nobody dismissed Zakaria's plagiarizing, and nobody at the Post would.
The equity of your fine paper is not just a material equity, even though the Post is a material asset, the value of which is quantifiable. The equity I'm talking about is the value it has in the lives of people like me. The Washington Post has reached a place where it can rightfully be called a cultural institution, and the fabric of societies are held together by the glue of institutions like these.
When a reporter, an editor, a publisher, goes to work for the Post — and when a person or a company purchases this newspaper — it's for a period of time. It's for a snapshot in time. And when that ownership or term of service ends the idea is to leave that paper in better hands than when the reporter, editor, publisher, owner, came to be associated with it. Those involved in cultural institutions enter into a pact where — even when someone temporarily holds the front door keys to the building — he or she understands the primary duty is as a custodian and husbander of the equity.
Certainly, the value of that relationship flows in both directions: certainly you, as an employee of the Post, have the right to try to stamp your imprimatur on the paper during your tenure there.
But in the end, the paper is larger than any of its employees. Indeed, it is by nature the sum of its employees, its owners and all its stakeholders. No one person has the right to use and to change a cultural institution for his her own aggrandizement.
Cycling and triathlon are not just games. They are lifestyles. They are industries. They are ways of life. They are cultural institutions. Just like the Washington Post, they are the first activities to which many people turn every day.
Ms. Jenkins, everything you wrote about Lance is true. But everything you wrote is beside the point. For everything good Lance is; and for every mitigating factor that reduces his culpability; you did not write that Lance abused his place as custodian of the sports that earned him his living and gave him his opportunity.
You and I have a foot in two cultural institutions: journalism and sport. Accordingly, I'm sure you can understand when I ask: understand that activities like running, triathlon, cycling — and the "celebrations" of these in the form of events where we come together and perform them in common (i.e., races) — rise to the level of cultural institutions. Please accord to us engaged in these activities the right to a set of rules, and an attachment to the rigor and the challenge of adhering to them.
There is no journalist who, by cult of personality, or other good works, or body of work, is above the vocation, and immune to the rules. Likewise in sport. I can forgive a journalist and an athlete the breaking of these rules. But the act of forgiveness acknowledges the wrong. By not acknowledging the wrong, you erode the institution.
Ms. Jenkins, there is one more book you and Lance Armstrong could co-author. It would probably outsell all the others. It's the one where the author acknowledges the wrong. Then I can not only continue to like Lance Armstrong, I now can forgive him for what he's done to the sport I share with others, and honor him for his attempt to leave this institution better than when he found it.