Sullivan spots Darren Rovell reflecting on the news that Lance Armstrong will be stripped of his voluminous cycling accolades after announcing he would no long contest the charges that he used performance enhancing drugs during his career:
Sure, we came to know him as the guy who nobody could beat on a bicycle, but his legacy has to be the lives he improved, the lives he saved. We often use statistics to ask ourselves if a maligned athlete, particularly one who was found to have used performance-enhancing drugs, should deserve the praise we give them. But judging Lance Armstrong by any other statistic than that he has raised almost $500 million for the fight against cancer in the past 15 years just seems small. And even that doesn’t strike at the heart of what Armstrong did. While so many athletes love to show up at hospitals when the news cameras come along, Armstrong gave some pretty incredible one-on-one time to so many sick people. When he couldn’t do it in person, he recorded a video and sent it in an email, even if he heard that someone had hours to live.
I think this is an excellent time to recall the remarks of Ta-Nehisi Coates, echoing a sentiment that I’ve repeated many times, but which remains a profound and necessary addendum to the human condition:
Virtues don’t excuse sins; they cohabit with them. [For example], Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. Perhaps worse he was a slaveholder who comprehended, more than any other, the moral failing of slavery, and it’s potential to bring the country to war, and yet at the end of his life he argued for slavery’s expansion … But Jefferson was a beautiful writer, and a great intellect, whose thinking and prose I consistently find stunning. This admiration does not negate his moral cowardice. Both are true at the same time.
This is an extremely important concept that many people fail to grasp when they get a whiff of some manner of human malfeasance, whether professional, athletic, criminal, or otherwise. We have a tendency to immediately and completely write people off who have “broken the rules,” or violated some malum in se principle of human conduct (e.g. cheating in a supposedly equitable contest). It has particular relevance in our criminal justice system, where we label people “convicts” and “felons” (or more commonly just “criminals”), and then we relentlessly demean and abuse them through multifarious social mechanics that prevent them from obtaining the redemption that supposedly awaits them on the other side of the penal wall. In the process, we forget that human beings are rich, complex creatures capable both of outrageous conduct and abundant good works in equal measure. Virtues and sins are not always antagonists in the human condition. More often, they are bedfellows.
Just as Hawthorne’s canonical opus moves us to reflect upon the wisdom of reducing people to the worst thing they’ve ever done, so too ought we to give the Lance Armstrongs of the world the benefit of the doubt. Would it let a lot of people down if they found out that Lance Armstrong cheated to win his titles? I’m certain it would. Yet it seems he has earned enough good mojo outside of his athletic career that I doubt this will hurt anyone’s opinion of him much. If Rovell’s account of Lance Armstrong is true, I have a strong suspicion that Armstrong will not be found wanting should he find himself face to face with Ma’at’s feather in the afterlife.
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- imall4frogs said:Your musings about our penal system struck a poignant chord. Do we believe in punishment, or in inextinguishable punishing? (Pro tip: ask a felon.)
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