7 Lessons from Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens


Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens are back in the news. Now that the allegations of using performance enhancing drugs is old news, the media is buzzing with debate about their legacy. How should we remember their accomplishments? Is there a possibility for redemption or forgiveness at this point? What can we learn from this era? Here are seven lessons that I have learned:

1. Winning is not everything.

In the end, we want success to mean something. We want to be able to say that winners are successful because they deserve it. When that trust is violated, the experience of winning itself is cheapened and lost.

2. No hero is heroic all the time.

We want to believe in the possibility of heroism. So we lionize our heroes. We make them into saints. We rationalize away their flaws. The truth is that no one can live up to their reputation, good or bad. No victory is completely pure. There is no such thing as a truly level playing field. As Malcolm Gladwell shows us so convincingly in his book Outliers, there are always a host of factors outside anyone’s control when a person experiences success.

3. No cheater cheats all the time.

The words sociopath, arrogant, and cheater come up over and over again whenever the legacy of Armstrong, Bonds, and Clemens is debated. But no cheater cheats all the time. Yes, some people cheat more than others. But even the worst cheaters understand that life cannot be sustained through cheating. There needs to be some honesty somewhere. Somewhere, there needs to be trust. Labeling these people as cheaters may give us the moral distance to judge them, but the truth is that they are probably a lot more like us than we’d like to admit.

4. Shrines are by nature, unforgiving.

When an athlete is inducted to the Hall of Fame we say that they have been “enshrined.” You can argue that the Hall is just a museum, but the fact remains that there is something reverential about the place.

They don’t admit mediocre players into the Baseball Hall of Fame because the Hall represents pure baseball excellence. The Tour de France is supposed to represent pure cycling excellence. Shrines are by nature unforgiving.

At it’s essence, the debate over how we should remember our athletic heroes from the PED era is about the possibility of offering forgiveness in an unforgiving institution.

5. True forgiveness is undeserved.

Who has the right to forgive our athletic heroes? What does forgiveness look like? Is it the chance to compete again? Is it the chance to redeem themselves on some other stage? Is it a qualified admittance into the hallowed shrine of their chosen sport? Is it popular support?

Lost in our musings is the reality that true forgiveness is always undeserved. The moment you say, “I deserve another chance” you are no longer looking for forgiveness but recognition. Someone seeking true forgiveness is not defiant or defensive but transparent, humble, and penitent.

6. Redemption is a better story than recognition.

One of the interesting storylines in Lance Armstrong’s fall is how some of his Livestrong supporters continue to stand by him (not his organization but the people who wear his yellow bracelet). There was nothing dishonest about his victory over cancer. Armstrong didn’t conspire to deny, mask, or hide his cancer. He admitted his sickness and fought it. He came back from cancer. He was not supposed to survive, but he did. Lance Armstrong would not be Lance Armstrong without his cancer. He gave hope to legions of people hoping to survive cancer – people hoping for redemption.

7. The only hero who deserves a place in the shrine gave it up for us.

None of us can have it all. None of us are as good as we look. None of us are as bad as we look. None of us deserve to enter any shrine. All of us want forgiveness. All of us want redemption.

Winning is not everything.

This is what makes Jesus such a compelling person. He is the one person who doesn’t need forgiveness. He is the one person who belongs in the true and eternal shrine – heaven. He is the archetypal hero. Yet His greatest accomplishment is not making it in the shrine, but giving up the shrine, being crucified, and rising from the grave to open the shrine to undeserving sinners. When our sins are exposed, Jesus offers us forgiveness in an unforgiving institution by crying out, don’t crucify them, crucify me! He is the only hero we can safely worship.