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A Jewish Take on the Armstrong Scandal

November 28, 2012 By:
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Lance Armstrong during the Superfrog Triathlon 2012. Photo by Elizabeth Kreutz, lancearmstrong.com

Seemingly every organization that ever used Lance Armstrong's image to promote a product or cause has divorced itself from the cyclist after fellow athletes testified that he not only cheated his way to victory, but also bullied others into doing the same. Racing authorities stripped Armstrong of the Tour de France titles he'd claimed from 1999-2006 amid accusations that he'd earned them with the help of performance enhancing drugs. 

Unlike baseball players caught using steroids, however, much of Armstrong's fame came from his story off the field, where his survival from cancer inspired millions and raised huge sums of money for his Livestrong Foundation. That presents yet another vexing ethical question: Will the revelation that Armstrong didn't earn his titles honestly undo some of the good work he did to give hope to cancer patients around the world? 

In conjunction with our feature about rabbis who cycle, we asked Judd Levingston, a rabbi and avid cyclist who works at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, to weigh in. His responses are edited for brevity and clarity. 

Where did you stand before Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles? Did you believe he was clean during his historic run? 

Before the evidence was revealed, I was as excited as anybody else I know about Armstrong’s victories. I must confess to having felt some pride as well that an American from Texas could have ridden wheel-to-wheel with some of the great European cyclists.One summer, a friend lent me Armstrong’s autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back from Cancer, which emphasizes his medical comeback and determination to find a place for himself in the world of cycling.  I found it a page-turner because I could relate to many aspects of his story. When the first allegations came to light, I was concerned, but I attributed them to the jealousy that can run between athletic teams or drive candidates for public office to make scandalous suggestions about their opponents.  

On a personal level, what do you think about Armstrong's mix of good and bad deeds? 

Few of us grow up thinking that we’ll ever have a chance to play professional baseball, football, basketball or hockey. So professional athletes, like orchestra conductors, presidents, rock stars and Hollywood actors and actresses, often seem to stand head and shoulders above us and we cannot really imagine ever reaching their level of achievement.  Bicycling, however, seems like it should be in a different category of sport because nearly every one of us knows how to ride a bike. Armstrong's achievements seemed especially exciting because he could have been our next-door neighbor who reached the summit of the cycling world with a combination of physical strength and grit. The average American who hadn’t ridden a bike since his or her childhood now had permission to put on sunglasses and a helmet and ride into the hills. Cancer survivors suddenly became as heroic as professional athletes. I remember thinking, "Shouldn’t I be able to train hard and eventually join Lance Armstrong at the podium, too?"

We should be grateful to Armstrong for giving cancer survivors a great deal of hope and for giving the average middle age mortal a weekend sport that is kind to our aging knees and doesn’t require a 100-yard field or two teams of nine players!

However, as grateful as we might be to Armstrong for making the sport so accessible, the alleged activities are damning and deeply disappointing.  Not only do we have to question his achievements, but we have to question the achievements of our peers and our students as well.  I was struck by an Aug. 12 essay published in the New York Times Sunday Review (“How to Get Doping Out of Sports") in which Jonathan Vaughters, a former professional cyclist himself, writes that cheating comes when the dream of success seems within reach and when cheating seems like the only way to attain the winning edge that will close the gap between being an also-ran and winning first place.

As co-chair of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy Derech Eretz Committee, which functions as a school-wide honor council, I am concerned about the number of adolescents who take a page from this playbook and make poor choices to cheat on homework assignments, papers and even tests.  The cheating scandals at Harvard College and Stuyvesant High School in New York show that high-achieving students already feel so much stress that they are willing to drop the pretense of honesty to close the gap between a fairly-earned decent-enough grade (which might even be an “A” or “A-“) and a superior grade of an A+. With a new Derech Eretz pledge or honor code, we are making a concerted effort to promote such values as humility, modesty, honesty, honor, community and fellowship.

What about from a Jewish perspective? Is there any place within the religion that says, well, the good outweighs the bad?

Armstrong did some permanent good by raising the profile of bicycling in this country. On the other hand, his alleged drug use did so much permanent damage. According to some of the rabbinic teachings I know best, the end does not justify or exonerate the means.  In the well known tractate of the Mishnah called Pirke Avot, the rabbis teach that one mitzvah – commandment – leads to another and that one transgression leads to another. This was borne out in cycling because the enthusiasm around the sport brought us all much good, but the scandal, unfortunately, appears to have led to a downward spiral of bullying and abuse until the whistle was blown.

In the Mishnah tractate concerning the holiday of Sukkot, rabbis teach that one cannot steal a lulav for the purpose of performing the mitzvah of waving a lulav.  The lulav has to be acquired legitimately and one is better off not having one if stealing is the only option. In other words, the end does not justify the means, so the good does not outweigh the bad.

Would a confession change your opinion of Armstrong?

Because our tradition places a high value on teshuvah — repentance — it would be very meaningful to hear Armstrong discuss what happened during the course of the alleged scandal and whether he feels any remorse. As an American, as an avid cyclist, as a rabbi, and as one who likes to see the good in people, I am inspired by his many athletic victories because even with the alleged blood doping, he couldn’t have gotten as far as he did without a deep reservoir of raw talent.  I am mindful of some historic cases in which people have been accused of crimes that they did not actually commit, so I would hope that Armstrong would only confess if he felt genuine remorse. I still wish I could say, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

Again, from a Jewish perspective, does an admission of guilt change how Armstrong is judged?

The great sage Maimonides writes that the process of teshuvah has to involve genuine remorse and an effort not to repeat the evil mistakes of the past.  When Michael Vick signed a contract to become a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, talk show hosts and fans wanted assurances that the player had matured beyond his pre-conviction days of animal abuse.  This public outcry resonated with my Jewish sensibilities that an apology is not enough — it has to come together with action, restitution when appropriate, and an effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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