Thursday, August 16, 2007

cheating (part 5) : forgiveness & redemption

note: this is the last part of a multi-part series i'm writing to cover all of my thoughts on doping. you can check out part 4, part 3, part 2, and part 1.

One of the (many) collateral effects of doping is the public reception of the discovered cheater. As spectators and possibly fans, there is an issue as to how we deal with athletes who have been found to be using performance-enhancing substances, particularly if they are returning to athletic competition, particularly if they were athletes we admired.

It's a personal issue for followers of sport. Although we do not have individual connections with individual athletes (few fans, if ever, actually talk one-on-one with an athlete, fewer still actually develop relationships with them, and most of the time fans and athletes are mere figures to each other), we still develop personal impressions and sentiments in association with athletes, particularly those with sufficient public profile to garner popular recognition. Sometimes those impressions and sentiments rise to emotional attachment, connected to compulsions situated deep within our psyches. Whether hero or villain, we identify athletes in certain ways in our minds, and follow them through our personal perceptions of who we think they are or who we want them to be.

The existence of forgiveness

It's a relatively easy thing to accept an athlete who has been cleared and judged innocent of doping charges. While there may be an air of suspicion, we can still reason to ourselves that the official mechanisms for judgment ruled in favor of innocence and presumably did so utilizing all the resources of examination and consideration (resources not available to us), and hence that there is a ruling with legitimacy sustained by recognized authorities sufficient to satisfy public uncertainty. In effect, even if we hold some doubt, we can assuage (or, depending on who you talk to, delude) ourselves into believing a suspected cheater is innocent--because the authorities we heed said so.

The harder case, however, is an athlete who has been convicted of doping. In such an instance, there is no acquittal by authority buffering us from reality; there is only reality that confirms our worst suspicions. This produces several consequences upon us as spectators of sport:
  • Betrayal: the sense that someone we entrusted with our admiration has broken that trust by doing some unworthy of our admiration. This is made worse when the athlete led us to believe they were something special--it is one thing if they never claimed to be who we thought them to be, but another thing entirely if they had promised us they were
  • Disappointment: the sense that someone we believed to uphold ideals failed to do so--not because they failed while trying their best (which is forgivable), but because they failed with full intent to do so
  • Disenchantment: These emotions lead to a subsequent loss of faith, most often in the athlete, sometimes in the sport, and occasionally the world.
Note that these emotions aren't about athletes failing to meet our expectations. They're about athletes failing to meet rules. Here's the difference:
  • Expectations imply that individuals are being held accountable to meet standards which are subjective, and because they are subjective tend to be higher for gifted individuals (e.g., elite athletes) than for the normal population. This proffers a loophole in which individuals who do not meet expectations can simply fall back on the excuse that they "were only human." This allows athletes caught using performance-enhancing substances to ascribe their foibles as characteristic to our species, and hence passe'.
  • Rules, in contrast, imply that individuals are being held accountable to standards which are objective, and not only objective but also universal, meaning that individuals--gifted or otherwise--are expected to follow the same rules everyone else does, because they are human. This means athletes caught using performance-enhancing substances have no excuse for their transgressions, because as members of our species, they (just as much as we) are expected to follow the rules enacted to maintain conduct in our society. Often, this is succinctly stated in the maxim: "No one is above the law" (including, presumably, athletes).
This is perhaps why forgiveness for doping athletes is so difficult: it's not because they failed standards that were greater than those for everyone else; it's because they broke rules that everyone is expected to follow. In other words, it's not that they were unable to rise to greatness, but instead that they were unable to even raise themselves to a minimum standard.

There is the counter-argument that athletes, cheaters and non-cheaters alike, do not need to seek forgiveness from fans; that there is, in fact, no issue of forgiveness at all. The reasoning is that between the athlete and the audience there is no relationship that suffers damage from a particular transgression, because there is no tie of kinship, oath, or contract between the athlete and spectator. The apologies, if to anyone, are owed to family and employers, since it is to them to which blood and promises are made.

But such arguments are suspect, because there is a connection between athletes and fans: the sport. When an athlete cheats, they offend the ideals of sport--and not just their specific sport of choice, but the entire concept of sport in general. One of the fundamental components of the concept of sport is providing humanity a reflection of itself; that training and competition display attributes in athletes, and reveal those attributes as part of human character as a whole. At its best, sport is expected to express the qualities in human nature to which we hope to aspire. In offending the concept of sport, the athlete offends those aspirations, and in offending those aspirations, the athlete offends the hopes of people yearning to realize their ideals.

In short, there is an issue of forgiveness from the public for any athlete seeking to return to sport following a transgression. The forgiveness must come from sport (specific and general), and by extension the people to whom sport serves: the fans.

This leads to the central question: is there any room for forgiveness from we the public, especially considering both the subjective damaged emotions and objective broken rules? Can we as spectators accept the return of an athlete convicted and punished for performance drugs?

The meaning of redemption

The answer isn't clear. There seem to be some cases where forgiveness would seem appropriate, but there are others where it simply does not.

By way of illustration, consider the following slate of exemplars:
The above can be interpreted as a selection of athletes whose profiles fall along a continuum of reprehensibility, with the forgivable at one extreme and the unforgivable at the other.

The extremes are readily identifiable:
  • The vindicated innocent: Rutger Beke is an athlete who tested positive in 2004 for illegally high levels of EPO, but who was cleared of all charges on appeal when he proved that his EPO concentrations were a genetic trait characteristic to his family. In other words, he represents the athlete proven innocent, and hence the most readily forgivable (particularly since, in his case, there was found to be no real transgression).
  • The unrepentant guilty: Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids in 1988, confessed to using them, and was subsequently banned from competition. In public statements, he has asserted that he is sorry for having tested positive--but noticeably (and disturbingly) has never apologized for using steroids. In effect, he feels no shame for having cheated.
The other 2 cases are of interest: Nina Kraft and Bjarne Riis. Both athletes confessed to using performance-enhancing substances (specifically, EPO). Both admit to shame and regret. Both were stripped of victory titles. Both have publicly stated their desire to make amends.

The major difference, however, is that Bjarne Riis largely escaped punishment (because his confession came long after the end of his professional career), while Nina Kraft was made to serve a 1-year ban from competition. This suggests that Bjarne Riis never received justice, while Nina Kraft did. This seems to be a suspiciously unfair situation, with 2 parties of equal guilt being given unequal sanctions--something which is entirely contrary to the notions of fairness inherent in justice. As a result, it makes forgiveness a much more difficult proposition for Bjarne Riis, who essentially avoided justice, and makes forgiveness more palatable for Nina Kraft, who subjected herself to it.

Having said this, it should be reiterated that for these 2 figures there is still some prospect of forgiveness, particularly in comparison to someone like Ben Johnson. This if for one very simple reason: Nina Kraft and Bjarne Riis, unlike Ben Johnson, appear to be making their best efforts for their own redemption.

Redemption is important to forgiveness, because redemption encompasses several major elements related to the issue of forgiveness:
  • Wrong: the transgressor, either through intent or negligence, did something considered wrong
  • Remorse: the transgressor admits to having done something wrong, feels shame and regret, and is sorry
  • Penance: the transgressor accepts punishment for the wrong
  • Redress: the transgressor makes a sincere and vigorous effort to rectify the damage done by the wrong
Each of these elements conforms to the notion that an athlete who uses performance drugs has failed to meet the conduct codes of society. That is, they presume that the act of using performance-enhancing substances is about more than just disappointing the expectations of spectators, but is also about breaking the rules of society.

Following the discussion of forgiveness, this means that an athlete who proceeds through these 4 elements is making an admission that they did not meet the minimum standards expected of all human beings, and in so doing did hurt sport and its fans through betrayal, disappointment, and disenchantment of their ideals. Moreover, it further means that an athlete undertaking these 4 stages is making amends, not just to sport and its fans, but to the ideals contained within them. In effect, these 4 elements alleviate the factors that make forgiveness so difficult.

In this light, it's possible to place the aforementioned exemplar athletes on the scale of forgiveness using the elements of redemption as criteria, and better understand why each holds differing degrees enabling (or preventing) forgiveness.
  • Least forgivable: Ben Johnson has gone the least on the path to redemption, because while having made penance, he has still not recognized the wrong of steroids (remember: he only apologized for getting caught, not for using them), nor has he shown remorse for the wrong, and he does not seem to have made an effort at redress.
  • More forgivable: Bjarne Riis is more forgivable because he has gone farther towards redemption, even while escaping penance, since he has admitted he was wrong to use EPO, has expressed remorse, and has made efforts at redress (he publicly returned his Tour de France victory).
  • Likely forgivable: Nina Kraft, for her part, is more deserving of forgiveness because she is even farther towards redemption--she has done everything: she admitted she used EPO, expressed sincere shame and apology, accepted punishment, and has begun to redress the dangers of cheating.
  • Most forgivable: Rutger Beke, out of these 4 examples, was declared as never committing a wrong, and so is the most innocent of all.
It should be noted that there is another reason why redemption is so important. It is that redemption is more than simply earning forgiveness, but also about rehabilitation and restoration: rehabilitation of the athlete as an individual and human being, and restoration of human ideals in general. In which case, even as the classic maxim reminds us that forgiveness is about the divine, redemption can be seen as being not just about the single athlete, or the single fan, or even the single sport; redemption can be seen as being about humanity.

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