Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lance & Eminem

NOTE: This post is rated R for prevalent drug references and pervasive strong language.


The latest doping accusations against Lance Armstrong are obviously big news. If you google “lance armstrong doping” you get 440,000 hits (as of today), but googling “Arnold Schwarzenegger steroids” gets you only 118,000 hits. Odd, isn’t it? Lance hasn’t been convicted of anything, and yet Arnold has confessed to past steroid use as a bodybuilder. As governor of California, Schwarzenegger is in charge of the eighth largest economy in the world, so his moral character ought to be front and center. Why the disparity in public interest?

Of course, Lance’s case is huge because of the seriousness of the allegations, their timeliness, and Lance’s profile as one of the greatest cyclists in the world. If he were found guilty, this would be one of the greatest scandals in the history of sports. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, used steroids decades ago—in a time, and a sport, where steroids were practically a given for all serious competitors.

But couldn’t the same thing practically be said of modern cycling? Let’s look at the doping record of the riders Lance beat during his seven-year Tour de France winning spree. Here is a list, by year, of every top-five contender who “tested positive or was sanctioned or sacked at some point in their career, either prior or subsequently.” (Source: Cycling Weekly.)

Dopers among Lance’s Tour de France competitors:
1999 – The second, fourth, and fifth placed riders (Zulle, Dufaux, and Casero respectively)
2000 – Second through fifth (Ullrich, Beloki, Moreau, Heras)
2001 – Second, third, and fifth (Ullrich, Beloki, Gonzalez)
2002 – Second through fifth (Beloki, Rumsas, Botero, Gonzalez)
2003 – Second through fourth (Ullrich, Vinokourov, Hamilton)
2004 – Third and fourth (Basso and Ullrich)*
2005 – Second through fifth (Basso, Ullrich, Mancebo, Vinokourov)

(The asterisk for 2004 is for Andreas Klöden, who has never been sanctioned but paid a €25,000 fine to a German district court in return for dropping their investigation into eyewitness accounts of him blood doping in the 2006 Tour de France. Such a payment is not considered an admission of guilt under German law, but I think it deserves an asterisk.)

Given all this, it’s tempting to ask, “So what if Lance doped?” What are sports for, after all, but entertainment? If Lance was cleaner, or at least no dirtier, than the racers he was up against, and he put on a great show, isn’t that enough?

Of course not. Sports heroes are, well, heroes. Their fans—especially kids—look up to them as role models. How can we keep our kids flying straight when their favorite sports celebrities are setting such a bad example?

Ah, but the thoughtful albertnet reader has now latched onto something else: what about other celebrities that set a terrible example and go scot-free? Do a Google search on “Eminem drugs” and you get 2.38 million hits. And yet he’s never been arrested for drugs, nor has his drug use ever mired him in a public scandal. Meanwhile, he raps not only about personal drug abuse but about all kinds of violent acts, and consistently uses the most profane language he can think of. Why is it okay for this celebrity entertainer to do all this? Shouldn’t we hold him up to the same standard as Lance Armstrong?

In this post I examine these questions using Lance and Eminem as my case studies. Of course I’ll end up with a number of parts left over on the garage floor, but I hope to provide a useful perspective on the matter. (I hope I do better with this essay than with the pictures at the top. That’s the best photo I’ve personally taken of Lance, and with no pictures at all of Eminem I had to draw one.)

Why these two guys?

Certainly I could tackle this topic using different celebrities for my case studies. Why not choose a cycling icon like Jan Ullrich who was actually found guilty? And how about an entertainer like Lenny Bruce, who did get in legal trouble for his foul mouth, and died of a drug overdose? I chose Lance and Eminem because for many years they’ve almost blurred together in my mind. Both have achieved incredible success at the highest level as relative interlopers in their fields. Lance, as an American in a largely European sport, has won more Tours de France than any other rider in history. Eminem, a white musician in a black-dominated rap music scene, has had six consecutive number one albums, and has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide, making him one of the best-selling musical artists in the world. Lance and Eminem also had similarities in their upbringings: neither of them knew his father, and each had a stepfather with whom he didn’t get along. Moreover, they are both very bold, brash characters, perfectly willing to rail against the status quo. Heck, they even look similar. I have often thought that if Lance rapped instead of rode, he’d be Eminem, and if Eminem had athletic instead of musical talent, he’d be Lance. It just seems like a natural pairing for this essay.


I will make no attempt in this post to establish whether or not Lance ever doped. I don’t know the man, and I don’t know any of the riders who raced the Tour de France as his teammate. I have no special insight into the question of his guilt vs. innocence, and would be an idiot if I thought mere intuition mattered one iota here. I will stick with only know is widely known: 1) Lance has been repeatedly accused of doping; and 2) Lance has never tested positive, nor has he been convicted of sporting fraud of any kind. I will not confuse allegations with established fact. The point here is to explore the issue of drug use by celebrities and why it matters.

Role model

The accusations against Lance Armstrong have a special sting for the public specifically because his story is so heroic. He didn’t just win the Tour de France—he did it after almost dying of cancer. To look at a photo of him bald and sick, and then consider that he fought back and went on to win the greatest race on earth: of course it’s inspirational. And to believe won clean, against opponents who weren’t, is like a triumph of good over evil. It tells us that doping is just a shortcut to success for the lazy, and that real determination, careful planning, and perfect training (when combined with huge talent) really can carry the day. It’s the greatest evidence possible for the notion that you don’t have to cheat to win.

Lance’s case, then, becomes a battle between idealism and cynicism. Consider the following quotes:

Lance (in Nike commercial): “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, bustin’ my ass, six hours a day. What are you on?”

Wall Street Journal interview: “[Landis had] heard that the elite cyclists at the most grueling races used exotic and prohibited blood additives and synthetic drugs. Far from being repelled by this, he said, he had come to assume doping was part of the sport and, if he joined a top team, would be part of his job.”


For aspiring bike racers, the question of whether you can win without doping is obviously hugely important: the conclusion a young racer comes to on this may decide whether he continues riding clean, decides to dope, or quits the sport entirely. But the matter extends well beyond bike racing, since sport is so often used as a metaphor for all human endeavor.

In 2006, not long after Landis had appeared to win the Tour de France (but before his positive drug test), my daughter Alexa was upset over her team’s loss in a soccer game, and I had a talk with her. My thesis: most people, even champions, lose much of the time. I used cycling as my example. “Who won the Tour this year?” I asked Alexa. She replied, “Floyd Landis.” (We’d watched the race together on TV.) I said, “Good. But did he win on Alpe d’Huez?” She said, “Um, no.” Right, I told her: he had a terrible day there, lost the yellow jersey, and seemed to be totally out of the running—but he never lost hope, and went on to win the general classification. Inspirational! (In case you think kids don’t listen to such lectures, consider that when I followed up by asking who did win the Alpe d’Huez stage, Lindsay—three years old at the time—piped up, “Fränk Schleck!”)

Of course, my Landis lecture only made its point because we thought he was clean. It wouldn’t do to say to my daughter, “Did Floyd give up after Alpe d’Huez? No! He lubed himself up with a transfusion of EPO-enriched blood, slapped some testosterone patches on his balls, and crushed everybody in the next stage. Then, in the final time trial, still coked to the gills, he bested Pereiro to take the GC victory!”

It’s not hard for people, especially young and idealistic ones, to extrapolate from sports to the rest of life. A scene in “Breaking Away” depicts this wonderfully. The young hero, Dave, has argued with his father Ray, who refused to honor a verbal guarantee he’d given to a customer of his used car lot. Ray has suffered a heart attack from the altercation. Subsequently, Dave has been deliberately crashed in a bike race by one of his heroes, an Italian on the Cinzano team. Now, welcoming his father home from the hospital, Dave embraces him and apologizes, sobbing, “Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.” His prickly father awkwardly pats his son’s back and says, “Well … now you know.” Ray looks over to his wife, her eyes shiny with tears, and says, “Well? Talk to him, Evelyn!” It is the most touching moment in all of cinema. Fortunately for the viewers, Dave doesn’t take the cynical lesson to heart, and goes on to win the Little Indy 500 bike race. The joy in his victory salute signals redemption. Thus, the movie is inspirational instead of nihilistic, a triumph of idealism over cynicism.

Obviously Lance is only one racer, and cycling is only one sport, so this doesn’t all rest on his shoulders. But given the transgressions of other sports figures, we’re starting to run out of heroes. With the most recent Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador, now mired in a doping scandal, the matter of Lance’s innocence may represent the difference between a slightly vs. wholly corrupted sport. Were eight of the last twelve Tours won clean, or only one?

The entertainer

Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, doesn’t have a cancer research foundation; isn’t a magnet for product endorsements; isn’t anybody we talk to our grade-school kids about. Nobody expects Eminem to follow any rules or be a good role model for anybody. Nobody wakes him up in the morning to give him a drug test. He raps about whatever he feels like: sex, drugs, violence, whatever strikes his fancy. His net worth, a quick Google search tells me, is about $115 million, somewhat similar to Lance Armstrong’s. So: where does Eminem get off? Should we be outraged with this guy, who raps about all kinds of antisocial acts while acknowledging that his music “is for the kids’ amusement”?

I would argue, actually, that Eminem and other entertainers should be held to an entirely different standard from that of pro athletes. With any artist—musical, painting, literary—there is a divide between life and art. We appreciate the work (or not), whether or not we approve of the artist’s conduct in the rest of his life. How an athlete treats his body has everything to do with his performance, whereas for the artist an unhealthy lifestyle might simply be an unfortunate distraction.

Good art can be about anything and doesn’t have to be wholesome; after all, Shakespeare wrote plays about murder, suicide, war, and promiscuity. William Blake’s paintings were dark and often unnerving but no art critic would say Thomas Kincade’s Disney-esque works are in any way superior. You might well look at a painting, or hear a song on the radio, and have no idea—nor any interest—in who created it.

In the case of Marshall Mathers, the creator is even further removed. He has an alter ego—Slim Shady—nested inside another alter ego, Eminem. The narrative voice in his music is like a set of Russian dolls. We can ignore the true identity of the musician, while appreciating the music on its own merit. With an athlete, on the other hand, he and his work are one and the same.

No role model

As a young cyclist, I dreamed of following in the footsteps of cycling heroes like Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten. Creating for myself a simulacrum of their gaunt physique, even down to the shaved legs, was a given. Watching Andy eat a big bowl of granola, fruit, and plain yogurt for dinner made me wonder if I could stand to do that myself.

I don’t think it’s the same with the fans of other entertainers and artists. The budding painter might well admire the works of Van Gogh, but he wouldn’t want to be Van Gogh; Van Gogh was depressed for years and eventually killed himself. Unlike with sport, it’s not even tempting to believe that emulating an artist’s behavior will help the struggling newcomer to achieve the master’s success. Nobody ever cut his ear off in hopes of painting like Van Gogh.

But in the case of Eminem, might not our impressionable teens be tempted to emulate his bad living, just because he’s so cool? Well, Eminem himself mocks any fan who would try to mimic his misbehaviors; an entire song, “Role Model,” is devoted to this mockery: “I got genital warts and it burns when I pee/ Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me? I tie a rope around my penis and jump from a tree/ You probably wanna grow up to be just like me!” Another song, “Stan,” paints a picture of an obsessed fan who carries out numerous self-destructive acts that Eminem has rapped about. Eminem responds to Stan, “And what’s this shit about/ You like to cut your wrist too?/ I say that shit just clownin’ dawg/ C’mon, how fucked up is you?”

Of course, a dumb teen could ignore all the lyrics and see Eminem as an example of how you can use drugs and still be successful. A high-achieving drug abuser certainly does set a bad example; a high school friend of mine greatly admired a stoner named Paul who—though perpetually high—still got straight As. Paul was an unfortunate influence on my friend’s behavior; my friend got the drug part down without managing the good grades. (A couple of years after college, I ran into Paul in a Kinko’s, where he was working. He will be a cautionary tale for my daughters when the time comes.) Should we be down on Eminem for conveying the idea that some winners do use drugs?

No, because—predictably enough—Eminem got his comeuppance for his substance-abuse recklessness. In an early song he suggested, with little apparent concern, that drugs would one day get the better of him: “But in the long run/ These drugs are probably going to catch up sooner or later/ But fuck it, I’m on one/ So let’s enjoy/ Let the X destroy your spinal cord/ So it’s not a straight line no more.” This song, of course, would rightfully have teens’ parents fuming.

Sure enough, the drugs do catch up with Eminem in the long run, which he candidly admits in a song. This time he isn’t so breezy: “So I take a Vicodin, splash, it hits my stomach and ah/ A couple weeks go by it ain’t even like I'm getting high/ Now I need it just not to feel sick, like I’m getting by … Just to be able to function throughout the day. Let’s see/ That's an Ambien each nap, how many Valium, three?/ And that will average out to about one good hour’s sleep/ OK, so now you see the reason how come he/ Has taken four years just too put out an album beat/ See you and me, we almost had the same outcome, Heath.” The song starts out with a creepy skit of an EMT radioing ahead to the ER: “We have a mid-30s male found down, unresponsive, possible overdose, substance unknown ... he’s intubated and we’re bagging him now .. we’ll update en route, ETA 10 minutes.”

(Aside from his slippery, flippant Slim Shady and Eminem personas, Mathers the man corroborates his drug problems, candidly telling a reporter, “I overdosed and almost died.”)

I bother with all this detail to make a point: plenty of cyclists have been suspended for doping, but how many of them have spoken candidly about the real dangers involved? We’ve heard some remorse, sure, and some predictable fluff about turning over a new leaf, etc., but where are the tales of how scary it is getting a blood transfusion in a motel room, or injecting something you bought from a stranger on the Internet? Where’s the lurid tale, equivalent to Eminem’s, to scare our junior cyclists away from doping? Eminem’s carte blanche to rap about whatever he feels like gives him, in this case, the opportunity to give us a visceral sense of the danger of illicit drugs. Where Eminem is brutally honest, doping cyclists—even convicted ones—often continue being as secretive as possible.

The key difference

Doping bike racers may also get their comeuppance, as Landis has shown. The key difference is that when the missteps of an entertainer are made public (either voluntarily or not), a happy ending is possible. After his four unproductive years of drug addiction, Eminem got clean, and subsequently came out with two albums less than a year apart, each of them better than the one before it. His fans can take some heart in the whole sordid affair—on his new album, he often sounds jubilant. Far from being made more cynical by his story, we may develop more empathy for people with substance abuse problems, and Eminem’s recovery is a message of hope. At a minimum, his fans can go on enjoying his music—everything he ever recorded, no asterisks required.

The story of an athlete caught doping, on the other hand, cannot have a happy ending. Our past admiration for the athlete is shattered, and even after he returns from suspension his future exploits cannot be thoroughly enjoyed. Either he goes on to race poorly, highlighting the extent to which his prior success was dope-fueled, or he races well, raising our suspicions that he’s back on the lube. Above all, when a doping athlete is exposed, his fans feel like they’ve been duped, like he’s insulted their intelligence, played them and everybody else for suckers.

An artist (whatever type) who behaves irresponsibly doesn’t do it in the service of his art, and his work can be judged separately from his deeds. His output isn’t improved by the bad behavior; you can’t say, “Sure, that was a good album, but it doesn’t count—he was on drugs!” (The exception would be plagiarism, yellow journalism or deliberate falsification of one’s past in a supposedly straightforward autobiography. At this point, Lance’s autobiography looks like a larger target for accusations of falsehood than Eminem’s, whether such accusations are valid or not.)

With sport, the star who takes dope isn’t really a star. His success is false; his entire oeuvre as stamped out by his lie. I can’t imagine going back and re-watching Landis “winning” Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France; the spectacle would just make me angry.

It’s especially awful when the doper denies wrongdoing and drags the public through a long legal process; Floyd Landis—before finally admitting guilt—even created a legal defense fund that raised about a million dollars from well-meaning fans sending in contributions. Everyone who believed in him is a victim of his deceit: fans, teammates, managers, sponsors, companies he endorsed ... the list goes on and on.

Also victimized are all the clean racers deprived of glory by dopers stealing it. Cadel Evans, who lost the 2007 Tour de France to Contador by a mere 23 seconds, must be particularly interested in, and infuriated by, Contador’s recent positive drug test. He may assume, as I do, that a rider is either fundamentally clean or fundamentally not; I’d say if Contador cheated in this year’s Tour, he likely cheated the other times he “won” it as well.

The collateral damage with Eminem’s drug addiction was, I would guess, largely limited to his close friends and family.

The Lance Factor

In the long history of the Tour de France, only one rider—Landis—has been stripped of his victory due to a failed doping test. For Contador, a three-time winner, to be convicted would be a much bigger deal. But Lance? Seven victories, eight podium finishes! His legacy casts a long shadow over everyone else’s in the modern sport. His autobiography was a #1 New York Times bestseller. His foundation has sold over 70 million Livestrong bracelets. Livestrong Day, last Saturday, comprised more than 1,100 events in 64 different countries. Lance offers a message of hope to 28 million cancer survivors. Surely his bravery in the face of cancer, and his dedication to his sport, would be impressive whether he’s clean or not. But so much hinges on his innocence.

A bike riding friend of mine told me, “I was talking to a colleague, who’s not a cyclist, and when the subject of Lance came up she said, ‘Don’t you dare say anything to me about Lance and doping. I don’t want to hear it. I couldn’t take it if he were a cheater.’” Far beyond the reaches of sport—and how many Americans follow cycling, anyway?—there is a societal need for Lance to be innocent, for him to have been telling the truth all along.

As for Eminem, he has nothing to lie about: his entire approach to his music is to share absolutely everything about himself, the more wretched the better. About the worst scandal I can imagine for him would be if it turned out he came from a comfortable middle-class home and was raised by two loving parents. Outside of this Beaver Cleaver scenario, he’s safe: his legend can handle any amount of debauchery.

That, I think, is why sports heroes must hold to a higher standard than other entertainers. With widespread idealism vs. cynicism at stake, we have to hope that sports heroes like Lance are racing clean.

Final note

I’ve struggled with this post. It’s a complicated subject matter and my own opinion has morphed repeatedly over the years, months, and weeks. I’ve tried to do the topic justice, but am well aware I’ve left the door wide open to disagreement and criticism; I hope at least that I’ve avoided offending anybody. (In 2004 I wrote an article about doping for the Daily Peloton that really offended some guy. He posted numerous diatribes against my story on the dp bulletin board, even asking the editor to yank the story. She eventually had to tell him to stop. I suppose I wouldn't mind offending a guy like that, actually.)

Back in college a teacher gave me a bad grade on a paper and summoned me to her office to discuss it. After pointing out the paper's many flaws, she concluded, “I’m glad you wrote this paper. I like to see you getting outside your comfort zone.” In that spirit, I’m going to post this Lance/Eminem essay now, though my temptation is to tinker with it some more, sleep on it, and forever postpone deciding it’s really done.

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