I Know I Said I'm Sorry ...

A rebel in Rio sent the wrong message to youth

Posted Sep 06, 2016

Ryan Lochte’s tortured explanation for bad behavior at the 2016 Summer Olympics no doubt left a sour taste in the mouths of many Olympians and, more to the point, scores of student-athletes looking to emulate them. So, too, did his delay in apologizing and insistence on referring to his blatant lying as simply “over-exaggeration.”

All of this begs the age-old question: What responsibility do people in positions of power, honor or prestige have to those who follow, particularly youth?

It is a topic I first addressed in an early fall 1998 opinion-editorial, “Character Does Count,” commenting on The Starr Report about then-President Bill Clinton. My argument was not about politics or “private” indiscretions. Rather, it was about the opportunity the “Role Model in Chief” had seemingly squandered in failing to send a message to young people about accepting responsibility for one’s actions, learning from the experience and moving on.

Should a similar standard apply to boorish behavior by those representing America (and misrepresenting Brazil) in similarly official – and dramatic – ways?

Before we check on that, let’s re-examine the facts as reported in the popular press.

According to The New York Times, a “drunk and unruly” Lochte – who is, by the way, 32 years old – first claimed that he and three other American swimmers were “pulled over by armed men calling themselves police officers, one of whom put a gun against his head before taking cash from his wallet.” But as conflicting statements from the others made their way into the public record, Lochte’s story began to change. Still it held little clarity.

In a Los Angeles Times piece, Olympian Gunna Bentz acknowledged that the four teammates “stopped at a gas station … and urinated on the side of the building,” during which time Lochte ripped a framed advertisement down. Other reports suggesting damage to a gas station bathroom door, mirror and soap dispenser were never substantiated.

What is clear is that an altercation with armed security personnel ensued, further exacerbating an already deteriorating, alcohol-infused situation.

Ultimately, Brazilian authorities, who decried Lochte’s “smearing Rio’s reputation as it held one of the most important international events” in the country’s history, charged the 12-time Olympic medal winner with filing a false robbery report, an indictment that will be forwarded to the International Olympic Committee’s ethics commission. In Brazil, conviction on such a charge carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison.

Perhaps not surprisingly, reports of similar incidents in Lochte’s past quickly began to emerge.

Unlike Lochte, the other swimmers seemed to quickly acknowledge wrongdoing, clarify their misdeeds and demonstrate contrition.

Jack Conger said, “First and foremost, I deeply regret the trouble and embarrassment this event has brought to the people of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, and the distraction it has caused from the achievements of my fellow Olympians … This has been an unsettling, humbling and frightening experience. It’s a reminder that all of us, when we travel and especially when we represent the U.S. in the Olympics, are ambassadors for our country and should be on our best behavior.”

Teammate Bentz offered, “Without question, I am taking away a valuable life lesson from this situation. In everything I do, I am representing my family, my country and my school. I will not take that responsibility lightly.”

As for Lochte, his vacillating and rambling remarks left an impression of insincerity and a lack of self-awareness that his behavior more closely resembled that of a middle-school rebel than an adult athlete performing on the world stage, setting a poor example for children everywhere.

Charlie Nicholas, a 13-year-old eighth grader and athlete, told me, “To be an Olympian, let alone a gold medalist, means you project yourself in a certain way. There was a wide audience watching the games at home, including many kids who likely look up to these athletes. First of all, Ryan Lochte was untruthful to the police in Rio, which is unacceptable. A teenager who saw that and lied to the police here could get in a lot of trouble.”

While citing the enviable work of actor Leonardo DiCaprio in protecting the environment, Charlie mused about who should be setting the example, saying to me, “Role models are people you hold in high regard, and you style your behavior after theirs. Should we choose athletes as role models even though some may otherwise be bad people? Or should we choose teachers, who have dedicated their lives to educating America’s kids?”

Pertinent questions … which bring us back to Ryan Lochte.

In my Clinton op-ed, I characterized back-to-school time as one of fresh starts and new beginnings, suggesting that perhaps we could give the President a “do-over” on the role model requirement and grant him an opportunity to tell America’s youth that, indeed, character does count.

Might we do the same for Ryan Lochte?

Perhaps what he meant to say was, “I’m sorry that I have served as a poor role model to young people, athletes and non-athletes, who looked to me for inspiration on how to achieve, excel and represent my country with honor and pride.”

That would send the right message to youth.

Charlie Nicholas is a rising eighth grader at the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, California, a student-athlete and a camper at the Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts.