Outkicked: What Are The Rules?

By definition, sports are rule-based and arbitrary, so if you don’t follow the rules, the whole thing kind of collapses and becomes meaningless.

Over the past week or ten days, there’s been a conversation about Lance Armstrong that goes something like this: ‘Never mind the doping, it’s destroying other people that’s reprehensible.’

Most recently, on Tuesday, that idea was advanced by Rick Ball, a former Olympic cyclist and father of the Atlantic’s Molly Ball, and Runner’s World editor-at-large Amby Burfoot. When asked how he now regards Armstrong, Ball responded that he has “tremendous admiration for what he’s accomplished, and vehement disapproval of the way he treated the other human beings in his life.” Burfoot, though “[m]ad as anyone” about Armstrong’s bullying, writes that he can forgive the doping: “In fact, I think I would have been tempted to do the same in the late 1960s when I was running my best.”

Ball and Burfoot both believe that the amount of doping in contemporary sports has forced professionals to cheat, or else to quit. (I’m not sure this is true, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is.) Both Ball and Burfoot were competitive athletes, and both were active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when doping wasn’t widespread. But had they been born 30 years later, they believe, they would’ve gone to the dark side.

RELATED — Magness: My Interactions With Lance Armstrong

A lot of people feel this way, I think, and not just in the world of sports journalism—this weekend, I got into a surprisingly heated argument about whether doping is outlawed because of health concerns, or whether to preserve the purity of sport. (Scott Douglas has more on what those health concerns are.) The argument is that doping isn’t really immoral, just dangerous and expensive.

Burfoot is a former colleague of mine, and I suspect that he’s being deliberately contrarian. But I’ll take him at his word, and I must say that I furiously object to this line of reasoning. What Armstrong did to the Andreaus, and David Walsh, Mike Anderson, and Emma O’Reilly, was wrong and really terrible, and they deserve to be made whole again. But that really should not distract from the reason everyone is writing about Armstrong, which is that he cheated, and that cheating at a game, because it’s a game, is unambiguously wrong.

Here’s why: I don’t approve of real-life cheating, but I certainly understand it. Absent religion, life can be absurd, and it’s often not clear which rules are important and which are inane. If you smoke a bowl, it’s probably illegal but hardly immoral. If you cheat on a test when you have a terrible teacher, you’re not exactly a sinner. And especially if you’re inclined to see the world as a place that rewards hard work inconsistently, cheating can make a certain amount of sense. You only live once, right?

It’s a lot harder to apply this logic to sports. By definition, sports are rule-based and arbitrary, so if you don’t follow the rules—say, by running 3 laps in a mile, instead of four—the whole thing kind of collapses and becomes meaningless. Likewise if you dope. Unless you’re motivated by external rewards, like fame or money or by beating other people, there’s really no point to competitive athletics if you’re going to cheat.

RELATED: If You’re Not Cheating, Part 1

If I read Ball and Burfoot correctly, they’re coming clean as being motivated by external rewards, and not by a desire to be their best selves. Or, more generally, they were not motivated by the spirit of competition, by learning how far and hard they could push themselves. They just wanted the satisfaction of knowing they were better than other people. And that’s certainly fair, but I’m going to insist that this is an anti-social approach to life, and not one to be proud of.

I was shocked when Burfoot wrote that “it sucks to run 120 miles a week and get buried at the races.” At least while I knew him, he was trying to run 100 miles per week as a 64-year-old, and I thought that was because he loved to run. I still think it was. Or maybe he just hates losing to Ed Whitlock.
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About The Author:

Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterVigneron.

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