Is Lance Armstrong Another Fallen Hero?

Lance Armstrong Barry Bonds Marion Jones and other sports stars offer parents an opportunity to talk with kids

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Ever since Lance Armstrong decided to quit fighting charges of doping by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the media has been abuzz with what his decision means. Is Lance a version of Pete Rose? Barry Bonds? Or Marion Jones?

What does Lance's decision mean for cycling? What does it mean for his world-class cancer foundation? What does it mean to his millions of fans?

And most importantly, what does it mean to kids?

How sports stars deal with their transgressions influences how parents should talk to their children about it.

For kids, it depends — on whether a child (or parent) thinks he's telling the truth, how bad they think it is to cheat and especially how parents talk to their kids about what happened.

Armstrong continues to maintain his innocence, pointing to hundreds of negative blood tests. Meanwhile, a significant amount of circumstantial evidence and testimony from former teammates and employees imply that he is lying.

Is Lance lying? Because of his decision to stop fighting the USADA, we may never know.

As adults, we can look at this situation and make judgments for ourselves. We can decide whether we believe him or not and what that means.

If a person thinks he's lying, does that undo all the good he's done for cancer research? Does it make all his wins worth nothing? What about his competitors, if they were also doping? Is this betrayal forgivable?

Adults know how to process these questions, even when they don't have answers. Kids are still learning that process, and they need adults to lead the way, according to LuAnn Pierce, a clinical social worker in Colorado.

How Kids See Sports Heroes and Their Sins

According to Pierce, in many ways, these sports figures aren't even "real" people. They are often not much different than the superheroes in comic books, one-dimensional characters that jump from the pages… until the book is shut.

She points out that while adults may be still thinking about this, kids forget about it in a few weeks or even a few days.

"Kids are kids. They don't really dwell on things the way we do as adults," she said. "They may be devastated for a short period of time, but they're not devastated forever about it."

Further, the way a child views a "fallen hero" will depend on what his transgressions are.

Most children can recognize the humanity of these larger-than-life heroes. Like adults, they are capable of judging the whole person, with their moral failings and their accomplishments and their good works, and determining how they should feel about a particular betrayal and what it means to cheat or deceive.

But they need guidance. And not getting that guidance might mean they take away the wrong message.

"In some ways, I think what happens is we get desensitized to things when they see them over and over and over," Pierce said. "That all starts when we're very young. What are our kids learning from the behavior of these adults?"

Armstrong still has many supporters who either believe he never cheated or who believe it doesn't matter.

But for those who believe he's lying, who believe his quitting is an admission of guilt, Armstrong joins a long list of fallen sports heroes.

A Parade of Fallen Baseball Heroes

Falling from grace isn't new for sports heroes. Neither is the letdown kids feel from those falls. They've picked up momentum in the past few decades, making that desensitizing more possible.

In recent years, baseball has captured the shame spotlight again, with Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and other heavy hitters all implicated in steroid use.

They have handled their situations differently, and those differences can guide parents in helping children process what happened and what it means.

"Kids depend on us to teach them how to behave, and this usually happens by observing what we do," Pierce said.

"By we, I mean the collective we of all adult authority figures and role models. Sports heroes, rock stars, politicians, religious leaders and other authority figures who lead public lives often find themselves under scrutiny for their private and public indiscretions and failings."

Canseco admitted his steroid use in his book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, a New York Times bestseller that outed many others in the league.

While he took responsibility for his actions, he did it in a way that brought him more cash and fame with his book and "snitched" on others in the process.

Since "snitching" is often regarded as a no-no among kids, Canseco's route is an opportunity for parents to discuss when and how it may be appropriate to call out others' misdoings.

McGwire, one of those called out in the book, eventually admitted he used steroids. "I wish I had never touched steroids," he said. "It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era."

Apologies are a good step, Pierce said. But they aren't the only one. And qualifying your actions — McGwire implied he was influenced by the "steroid era" — can backfire and lead people to believe you are not truly taking responsibility. Yet McGwire still did more than the others, who continue to deny using.

"Accepting responsibility for our behavior — good, bad or indifferent — is an important step in our own rehabilitation or healing," Pierce said. "Making public apologies can be helpful, but only if followed by changes in the behavior that led to the bad press in the first place."

It's this middle ground that Lance Armstrong appears to occupy now. Many point to his work in cancer awareness and fundraising as outweighing the possibility that cheated and is now lying.

Others feel that's not enough and simply want honesty, which they don't feel they're getting. Half-apologies historically don't fly with fans.

Half-Apologies

"I think kids now are kind of desensitized to the the fallen athlete thing," said sports fan Matthew McKibben, a father of two in Austin, Texas. "There's a lot more cynicism involved in fandom these days. Gone are the days of Mickey Mantle hero worship."

That may have been the case with Marion Jones, the Olympic sprinter who, like Armstrong, denied taking performance-enhancing drugs for years and pointed to dozens of negative drug tests, eventually admitted to using them and had to return her medals.

Jones' name doesn't come up often as a fallen hero, so it's fair to question whether she ever occupied that place for kids in the first place, despite appearing on Wheaties boxes.

Yet Jones offers parents an opportunity to discuss with their kids how each person handled the situation.

Talking to Your Kids

That brings us back to Lance Armstrong. Without knowing for certain whether Armstrong did or didn't cheat and is or isn't lying, how should parents deal with his situation and its uncertainty?

First, parents should recognize that kids are probably not thinking about it as much as adults are, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be addressed.

"I don't think ten-year-olds are sitting around saying, Lance Armstrong did it, and it's okay, but unconsciously I think there probably is a weakening of the moral fiber when time after time and week after week, one of these situations happens and it always involves lying and cheating," Pierce said.

It therefore comes back to the parents to help kids put the situation into perspective.

"I think that kids most definitely hero-worship athletes, but it should be the parents' responsibility to keep this in check," said sports fan Jason Eisenhauer in Arlington, Texas, home of the Texas Rangers.

"Parents should teach their kids to hit the ball like them not to BE like them. Ultimately the parents should be the role model for their children."

That's exactly the strategy Pierce recommends.

"They do learn how to process the information and handle disappointment, and all of that takes place in conversations with adults," she said. "It is important to talk to your kids about public figures who are in the media for inappropriate behavior or indiscretions and talk about whether they take responsibility or not."

Part of the goal is to remind kids that these "superheroes" are real people with real failings. That may help children eventually learn not to idolize one person so much that they lose sight of their humanity.

"Kids need to know that these people are human with feet of clay, and that they make mistakes," Pierce said.

"If the public figure handles the bad press appropriately, talk to your kids about that, too. Discuss forgiveness, remorse and any lessons that can be learned from the situation or how it is handled."

Pierce admits that's tougher when there is not a definite resolution: "In Lance's case," she said, "you really can't do that."

But parents can still discuss it. If the person in the spotlight is not taking responsibility for their actions, or if their honesty is in question, discuss that too.

Keeping an open dialogue going with children, especially as a story is unfolding, can help parents shape how these children view that person, how they look at that person's poor choices and how the kids take into account the consequences and betrayal that result from those choices.

They can also discuss the importance of honesty and what happens when a person's character is legitimately called into question despite their denials.

Meanwhile, since parents make mistakes too, they can show children through their own actions how to respond when they make a mistake.

Children will learn to look to their parents, rather than a sports figure, to know the right course of action.

"It is never easy to to know what to say or when to say it once we are outed for bad behavior, especially when it comes to kids," Pierce said. "My advice to parents has always been to model the behavior you want your child to display as an adult.

This includes when we do something wrong or make a mistake."

Tips for Talking to Your Kids

Pierce provides five tips for talking to your children about situations involving popular sports stars, or any kind of role model or idol, when their poor choices hit the headlines.

1. Do talk to your kids about what happened. Help them understand that adults, even heroes, make mistakes and face consequences — some consequences we will never know about.

2. Do help your kids relate the action to something in their daily lives - cheating, lying, stealing - so they understand the implications.

3. Do ask questions to find out how they feel about what happened. Talk to them about what to do when you have an addiction, what you do when someone lets you down and similar situations. Ask them, is it more important to win than it is to do the right thing?

4. Do remember to check in with them about it later, instead of having only one discussion about it - especially if the incident drags on in the news and/or new details are released.

5. Do encourage your kids to practice forgiveness and have realistic expectations. Use these situations to teach compassion and dispel myths about heroes being "superheroes."

It's too early to tell whether absolute proof that Lance Armstrong cheated by doping will emerge. The USADA claims to have good evidence of doping from retested samples and from multiple former teammates and employees.

But this information may not be released now that Armstrong has quit the case and the USADA no longer recognizes Tour de France wins.

Some take Armstrong's unprecedented decision to throw in the towel as an admission of guilt itself, even as he continues to introduce himself as the 7-time winner of the Tour de France. Others stand by him and his decision.

What cannot be disputed is that a certain cloud of suspicion will continue to hang over him and lead adults and children alike to question whether he is being completely truthful with his fans.

Adults can process this ambiguity as part of the human condition. Children, however, need a little help.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 6, 2012