Saturday, January 19, 2013

Lance on Oprah


Thoughts after Oprah's interview with Lance Armstrong on January 17th and 18th, 2013:

Three reasons why many people felt Oprah's Lance Armstrong interview was not revelatory enough for their tastes:

1.    He didn't name names;
2.    He refuted a few of the claims against him/he didn’t seem sufficiently contrite;
3.    We already knew the answers to most of the questions asked that did not have to do with his personal feelings.

I should not have to say this. While Oprah Winfrey is generally highly respected and widely recognized...
enough to be known by only her first name, her television program is not a courtroom. All those who were disappointed that Armstrong didn’t throw names around perhaps as blithely as his interviewer must recognize that a cable network talk show is not the appropriate format for hurling accusations or indicting the names and reputations of people not present. This is no less true when many of those people are currently engaged in any number of lawsuits, nor when the program happens to be a popular one. Lance himself more than intimated that he swims laps daily in a sea of litigation. He also bears the responsibility for the names and reputations of many people around him. In that regard, I absolutely understand his reluctance to name names and point fingers on Oprah. The proper setting for such disclosures is in front of a legally sanctioned body or panel appointed to such responsibilities, like the proposed “Truth and Reconciliation” committee. Oprah may have lots of “cred”, as Lance would put it, but her audience is no impartial jury, and she is no judge.

I think that Oprah understood the relative value of some of the testimonies, and while she did not have time to explain that and many other things to her audience, she also did not represent them accordingly. For instance, she worked to get Armstrong to discuss Dr. Ferrari to little avail. She told of USADA’s sanctioning him with a lifetime ban from sports, but chose to omit the controversy of a small American agency disciplining foreign nationals. Despite her efforts she surely knew getting him to name names would be futile. Landis and Hamilton got a lot of time because their stories are more sensational and more widely known; whereas some others received little or no attention. Nothing in that should surprise anyone. She did acknowledge the significance of George Hincapie’s voice, which Armstrong also acknowledged in a direct (if partly mumbled) statement:
"…If they hadn't gotten George they'd say, we're sticking with Lance…George is the most credible voice here". The point is of course that the only relevant, and in fact damning testimony is that which came from those who did not intentionally wish him harm.

Armstrong refuted the claim derived from Christian Vande Velde’s testimony that he, Armstrong, had pressured teammates to dope, and was dancing noticeably around the question of his power to fire teammates for non-compliance. He refuted the claim that his UCI donation was a bribe (giving Pat McQuaid hot ammunition to fire back at his accusers in the press the next morning).  For the first time he admitted to a career of doping, and to Emma O’Reilly’s claim that he had had a cortisone prescription backdated to account for his positive result at the 1999 Tour de France.
He first refused to approach the Betsy Andreu topic but managed to dig himself into what I thought was an awkward, shall we say, ugly hole when he stammered through an account from his 40-minute “apology” conversation with her. He recounted it as if it might sound amusing or otherwise revelatory, instead I think he revealed more about his own nature in the telling. In 2006 Andreu had made a loud public statement that included claiming Armstrong had called her several pejorative terms including “crazy”, “fat”, “ugly”, and “bitch” in light of her husband, Frankie’s confession and indictment of Armstrong. Armstrong last night revealed to Oprah part of his response during his recent phone conversation with Mrs. Andreu,
…I called you crazy. I called you a bitch. I called you all these things, but I never called you fat."
Oprah was speechless for a moment. I’m sure the moment is being dissected around the web, wires and airwaves as I type this. Baffled by his intended meaning, I will let him speak to that. Betsy, for her part, was ready on CNN to lambaste and challenge the Texan in a diva-esque raving, screeching flurry of remonstrations that is still bouncing off my walls. The two clearly have issues of their own to work out in private. 

In terms of overall contrition however, I have to lean toward his critics. While spewing much self-deprecating language (“I am flawed, deeply flawed…reckless, arrogant…look at this arrogant prick,” “I was a bully,” and referring to himself as someone who “needs a lot of therapy,”) he seemed to come across as compulsively narcissistic and cloistered in a reality of his own—though possibly emerging for the first time to sniff the air of regular human behavior. We can’t know his true feelings, but he made it clear that he was sorry he got caught: “we wouldn’t be sitting here today if I hadn’t come back,” sounds more like a man who feels shamed rather than ashamed.

For those of us who have been following every day of this long story there was not much for us to sink our teeth into in the way of revelation. That being said, my personal thoughts were that Oprah came fairly well prepared, managed to control the interview adeptly and was very concise and efficient with her questions. Given the enormity of the subject, and Oprah’s understandably limited grasp of such things as doping practices, professional cycling and the recent history of the sport—particularly the integral USADA case against Armstrong and the litany of contentious claims and biased language therein—she managed to give the public their show. She asked many of the right questions and challenged Armstrong when she thought he was trying to elicit empathy or pity.

Oprah does not have to have a full understanding of the case and the history and the players because her show is about humanity more than events, and it is after all just a TV show. Oprah knows that a good story is about people; she knows this story has great human interest and exposes to us our vulnerabilities, character flaws, affords us an opportunity to discuss them in the light of somebody else, an other, not ourselves. Her show, often valuably so, exposes human character, is about people, and doesn’t need to profess complete understanding of the history, logistics, dynamics of a situation; her audience knows that, too. One dynamic, any single facet of ourselves that we can wrap our little heads around, that we can glean better understanding of ourselves from, is a gift. Plus, most of us don’t have time to read the news from thirty different sources every day, and she and her crew can put together a comprehensible and captivating enough story to tell in a short period of time. 

For Lance’s part, Lance the competitor, Lance the institution, the economic machine, this interview was a stepping-stone. Lance (or his advisors at least) must be thinking a few steps ahead (which might explain some of the emotional distance folks might have sensed in him). A mire of legal issues, if not his own nature, prevents him at this point from looking into a camera and delivering a heartfelt, tearful apology to the masses, complete with total disclosure of all names, places and events. But he faced the music and we will watch expectantly to see if this was in fact the first step on a path to redemption.

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