In America, sorry never seems to be the hardest word

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The summer before Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France, Mark McGwire was the biggest star in American sport. As he closed in on Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 home runs, the St. Louis Cardinals’ slugger captivated a nation. Each day of the 1998 campaign fans watched to see if this outsized character who looked like a corn-fed farm boy straight out of the Midwest could break one of the landmark records in the game. Three years after a divisive baseball strike, McGwire and his rival Sammy Sosa were credited with helping America fall back in love with the national pastime.

When it emerged that McGwire (and Sosa) needed a little chemical help to shatter Maris’ record, the bloom suddenly went off the rose. As frauds go, it was one of the biggest ever perpetrated in any sport and was made much worse by the player’s subsequent unrepentant attitude towards revelations his feats had been steroid-fuelled. After making a fool of himself with an evasive and tongue-tied performance in front of a Congressional committee in 2005, McGwire went completely off the grid for a few years. During that time in exile, he was often held up by PR people as an example of how not to handle a drugs scandal.

Then something amazing happened that explains exactly why Lance Armstrong may be going into full-on mea culpa mode with Oprah Winfrey next Thursday. Just before emerging from hiding to start a job as hitting coach with the Cardinals, McGwire gave a kinda, sorta, not quite apology during a teary interview with Bob Costas, the doyen of baseball broadcasters. At his first home game a few weeks later, the Cardinals’ fans cheered him to the rafters and after three hugely successful seasons during which he returned seamlessly to the sport, the Los Angeles Dodgers recently signed McGwire to do the same job for them.

The lesson is that if you say sorry, even without going into much detail, many Americans are willing to forgive and forget. Quite readily in fact, judging by the numbers lining up to get McGwire’s autograph at stadiums all across this country over the past three years. This is what Armstrong and his people were counting on when they laid the groundwork by leaking the news he was considering a tell-all a couple of weeks back. Aside from the fact this was the only real play he had left, they know he isn’t breaking new ground here. Long is the list of American athletes who have discovered the benefit of confessing, repenting and returning.

It will help Armstrong’s cause immeasurably that some fans in these parts will readily accept his explanation because they view sport as just another branch of the entertainment industry anyway. Much like when they are watching stunts in action movies, they don’t care what sleights of hand are involved as long as they get to see something wondrous produced. Whether you took EPO to ride your bike faster or to hit the ball farther doesn’t bother a large section of the population. This much was brought home again this past week listening to baseball fans expressing outrage that “sanctimonious” journalists were keeping proven steroid cheats/their heroes out of the game’s Hall of Fame.

These are the same people who will listen to Armstrong talking to Winfrey and conclude that everybody else was at it too so he did nothing wrong. Indeed, this demographic will vouchsafe that since all other cyclists had access to the same pharmaceuticals, he was still the best of a bad bunch. Plenty others have counted on and capitalised on this type of ignorance and moral equivocation in recent years. A pitcher called Andy Pettite remains one of the most popular New York Yankees even though he was caught using HGH. The same fan base forgave Alex Rodriguez his lengthier steroid use the moment he starred in a World Series victory.

When it comes to this particular topic, it’s always been difficult for people in Europe to understand that there is very little stigma attached to steroid use in America. Perhaps it’s the presence of so many performance-enhancing substances in a lot of local gyms. Maybe it’s to do with “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’” being one of the first truisms children learn when they take up competitive sport.  Whatever the reason, getting caught using hardly ever does long-term damage.

Bill Romanowski was an NFL linebacker, most notably with the Denver Broncos, who featured prominently in the BALCO investigation that brought down Marion Jones and shattered the myth of Barry Bonds. Famously, Romanowski was once sued by a team-mate who accused him of assault while suffering from ‘roid rage during a training ground fight. Eventually, he came clean about the extent of his steroid use during his career and, yes, you may guess where this is going, he’s now all over radio and TV analysing grid-iron. No stigma required.

Across the Atlantic, that type of horrific resume would have doomed somebody to a life on the fringes of sport. Over here, as Armstrong well knows, it was a mere bump in the road, an unedifying chapter in a larger life story. Jones herself may have alienated the athletics world but having taken the Oprah Winfrey confessional option she was welcomed into the WNBA with open arms when she picked up a basketball again in 2010. That she had conspired to spectacularly cheat in another code wasn’t even an issue as parents brought their little girls to line up for her autograph at Tulsa Shock games.

Of all the major baseball players associated with steroids, Barry Bonds remains the one most obviously in the wilderness. Why? Because he has never offered a full and frank account of why he did what he did, preferring to stick to the lame, tired, old “I didn’t know what I was taking” excuse. In a sport which cherishes its former players like no other, Bonds currently has no role to play in baseball and probably won’t until he performs some sort of public act of contrition. Don’t think for a minute that Armstrong hasn’t seen the contrast between where Bonds and McGwire stand today, and decided which one he wants to be.

 

(This piece first appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday on January 13th, 2013)
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