Monday, October 22, 2012

Lance, What Did You Tell Your Kids?

Twenty years ago, Nike aired a television spot featuring Charles Barkley. As the camera framed his round face in an extreme black and white close-up, Barkley proclaimed, "I am not a role model...just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids."

True enough.

But if Swoosh and Company's aim was to evoke emotion in its audience, mission accomplished. Even though I was still two years removed from being a parent, I recall thinking:

Screw you, Chuck. First of all, you're shilling for a company who's made its fortune selling overpriced merchandise to children.

Secondly, your employer, the National Basketball Association, an organization that has secured your future and likely several generations of your descendants, currently sells a jersey with the name "Barkley" scrolled across the back for around $39.95.

And if I'm not mistaken, it's offered in kids' sizes.

So, whether you like it or not, you've chosen a profession which renders its employees role models. Don't agree, Chaz? Then be a mail carrier or a life insurance salesman, because you can't have it both ways.

A few years later, my six-year-old daughter discovered the allure of professional athletics and its personalities, deciding to hitch her wagon to Alex Rodriguez, then a young shortstop on the Seattle Mariners.

We spent countless summer evenings watching him play, discussing his work ethic and his respect for the game. Toward the end of that season, in jagged, unsteady words betraying her new found literacy, she scrawled A-Rod a note, proclaiming her admiration for him and his playing style. 

Before his reply could grace our mailbox, Rodriguez jumped the good ship Mariner, signing a two hundred million dollar contract with the Texas Rangers. In his parting press conference, he emotionally maintained that Texas was a better fit in his quest for a championship; money was not a factor.

Until that moment, I hadn't held an ounce of contempt for Rodriguez' decision. After all, who'd turn down a couple hundred million bucks to play baseball? But when he chose to proclaim to my kid and everyone else that it wasn't about the money, his hypocrisy hit a walk-off home run.

I can remember thinking, Alex, you can't have it both ways.

With A-Rod in the rear view mirror, the search for an heir apparent commenced immediately. And since no parent wants to hasten his child's journey down the path to cynicism, my cackles stood tall for a worthy candidate.

It wasn't difficult; he stood out so vividly in his yellow jersey.

Back in 2001, what larger source of inspiration existed than Lance Armstrong?

Yes, that's a real question.

After vanquishing a disease which ravaged the most sensitive region of the male anatomy than spread to his brain and lungs, he recovered to win the most grueling athletic contest known to humanity, the Tour de times.

We latched onto Lance like a piece of bacon to a maple bar. My girl and I spent countless July mornings chatting about his latest Tour exploits. We'd look east toward our mountain range, the Cascades, and marvel that anyone could traverse such heights in a bicycle, let alone pull away from world class competition.

And almost every year, one of Armstrong's chief rivals would succumb to a dirty drug test and withdraw from the race in disgrace, unable to maintain Lance's lofty, drug-free standard of excellence. We'd shake our heads and smile because cheaters deserve to get caught.

In a world where our children are modeled such a diverse spectrum of adult behavior, Lance Armstrong stood tall among the pretenders; he showed our kids that they can play by the rules and still be the best.

And now this. And he won't admit it.

I haven't really discussed this with her, but I plan to. She's seventeen now, and obviously her world view has changed substantially since that summer of 2001 when Lance Armstrong swooped onto our radar. She's seen a lot of people mess up, especially me, and she's seen how those people handled the consequences.

And I hope she's learned that, while we're human and we'll never cease erring, we can nevertheless be accountable, because therein lies a sliver of virtue and a first step toward redemption.

I hope she knows you can't have it both ways.

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