The Sporting Life

Developing competitors, coaches, and sports communities

Lance: I Love Him, I Love Him Not

Sports' Conflicting Cognitions

So in essence it has become official… Lance Armstrong is a cheater.  Perhaps something many have guessed for a while now, but also something most did not want to accept.  Cancer advocacy’s wonderboy, perhaps the most impactful individual in the last decade of the cancer fight is a manipulative leader of cyclists and a world class deceiver of sport.  These paradoxical efforts are difficult for the human brain to reconcile… so much good done, yet seemingly so bad to the bone.

Writing about this cognitive dissonance is not some intellectual endeavor, but truly one that lies close to home for me.  In a household that has been struck by a particularly cruel battle with cancer, a Livestrong bracelet shared between cancer patients proved to be a motivating symbol of strength.  Certainly at one time a rubber yellow bracelet was a fashion faux pas.  Yet now, I have seen intimately how plastic bracelets connect and comfort.  Lance Armstrong’s iron will and substantial ego allowed him to be ambitious enough to reshape cancer care and advocacy on a global scale.  He is a hero to my family, but this makes his alleged actions on the playing field no less criminal.

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Sadly over the past couple of decades, positive character behaviors too often appear to be the exception rather than the rule in competitive sport.  It is not so much that winning is so important, but rather that efforts to skirt the rules of play are generally accepted by sport and society.  Sport psychology researchers, Brenda Bredemeier and David Shields have termed this suspension of everyday values when the ball is in play “bracketed morality.”  Lance Armstrong is not the first to embrace this sports reality, just simply the first succeed so tremendously as both a philanthropist and doper.  The playing field has become a place where everyday ethics are not expected - do good in life, in sports do as you please.

This is a story of the failure of sport.  At one time, parents enrolled their children in sport for the positive values and life skills they would learn.  Recent evidence has shown that parents should hope that they have instilled strong enough values in their children so that participation in sport does not lead them astray.  This is also a story of opportunities that lie ahead for sports coaches and organizations.

Competitive sport has become so disconnected from everyday society, it is hard to blame athletes for finding their own set of ethical standards.  When human connections are thin, moral behaviors go astray.  If I do not have a personal care for or connection to my fellow competitor, I am more likely to harm him or at very least have little concern over slighting him.  If I spend my entirety in the gym, at practice, and in team meetings, I have no time to share space with scholars, artists, and otherwise “regular” people.  Behind the closed doors of modern sport, wider community values are not mutual nor communicated.  Shared rather than bracketed values could use a rebirth.

This is the challenge (a.k.a. opportunity) that lies in the hands of athletic communities.  Cognitive science has shown that making character education an interpersonal event can help pro-social behaviors.  Sports that truly bring people together – fans, opponents, and families – stand the greatest chance of positively impacting the decisions of participants.  The divisive fandom and high stakes competition of elite sport have trickled down character behaviors to adolescents and youth.  Perhaps sports associations can create a groundswell that can in time push ethics up to more adult sporting realms.  Certainly time it will take, but it would be nice to feel less conflicted about our heroes some day.

Sport itself has exacerbated the cognitive confusion presented by Lance Armstrong, he did good and bad.  There are enough complexities to the human condition.  Is it too much to ask for our play and our everyday to share the same values?

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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