This story’s been on my desk since last month (Washington Post, Oct. 26).
My attention comes, not so much from Armstrong’s clear violation of U.S. doping rules regarding competitive cycling, but from an astonishingly implausible defense of Armstrong’s actions by author Brad Allenby.
Allenby, a Lincoln professor of ethics (remember this part) and engineering at Arizona State University, writes, “Whether Armstrong cheated is not the core consideration. Rather, his case shows that enhancement (doping) is here to stay.”
And here’s what jumped out at me: “If everyone’s enhancing, it’s a reality that we should embrace.”
Just seventy-eight words into this story, and a professor of ethics utilizes the “everybody-does-it” defense in mitigating clearly illegal actions.
However, this is just the kick-off to Allenby’s journey into “reasoned” justification. “In an earlier time,” he writes, “rules limiting the use of such technology may have been a brave attempt to prevent cheating. Now, they are increasingly ineffectual. Humans are becoming a design space. That athletes are on the cutting edge of this engineering domain is neither a prediction nor a threat. It is the status quo.
“Get over it,” Allenby says.
“Today, the gap between superstar athletes and almost-stars is rapidly growing. The benefits of being at the top of your game — money, sponsors, cars, houses, movie careers, book deals and groupies — have never been clearer. After all, how many lucrative marketing contracts go to bronze medalists?”
With only three slots open – First, Second and Third, and a vast field of competitors – is the true goal of competition reallyall about a marketing contract?
“In my engineering and sustainability classes, I ask my students how many have played sports in high school or college. Usually, at least half raise their hands. Then I ask how many know people who enhanced illegally. The hands stay up, even if I limit the question to high school athletes.”
Legitimate, but does that make it right?
“Mischaracterizing a fundamental change in sports as merely individual violations of the rules has serious consequences. For example, this thinking has led to inadequate research on the risks of enhancement technologies, especially new ones. Why research something that can’t be used?”
Since when is cheating now categorized as “fundamental change”?
“Enhancement — legal or illegal, according to confused, arbitrary and contradictory criteria — is pervasive. Indeed, surveys show that significant numbers of non-athletes, especially in high school and college, use steroids to try to improve their appearance rather than to augment their play on the field. This should not be surprising, given the popularity of other cosmetic-enhancement techniques such as discretionary plastic surgery, even among young people.”
“Confused, arbitrary and contradictory”? According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency website, a detailed list of banned substances is an easy download.
“Armstrong’s ‘alleged’ doping in the Tour de France,” Allenby concludes, “is just more evidence that human excellence is increasingly a product of enhancement.”
Well, to begin with, Armstrong’s doping is no longer “alleged,” it’s a scientific certainty according to a report filed with theU.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the International Cycling Union.
Secondly, Allenby equates doping to plastic surgery? When was the last time an actor was stripped of an Oscar for plastic surgery?
“Excuse me, Ms. Streep, but upon further analysis, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has received certified proof that your 2009 performance of Julia Child was illegally enhanced. (Your boobs were fake!) Therefore, we are stripping you of your Oscar. Please return ASAP.”
According to Professor Allenby, not doping would put Armstrong at a competitive disadvantage. If most everyone else is doing it, according to Allenby’s logic, Armstrong must do it. After all, “human excellence is a product of enhancement.”
But let’s carry Allenby’s conclusions to a logical next step.
According to a 2009 national study on High School Character and Adult Conduct by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, during 2008, 64 percent of high school students surveyed admitted to cheating on an exam. The 2009 “study reveals a close connection between youthful attitudes and behavior and continuing patterns of dishonesty as young people enter the adult world,” (Based on 6,930 respondents in five age groups: 17 and under, 18-24, 25-40, 41-50, and over 50).
“Teens 17 or under,” Josephson writes, “are five times more likely than those over 50 to hold the cynical belief that lying and cheating are necessary to succeed (51% v 10%), nearly four times as likely to deceive their boss (31% v. 8%).”
Surprised, Professor Allenby? Get over it!
Today’s students are more technologically advanced than similar students 20 years ago. They’re equipped with high-speed laptops that can Google and plagiarize a report in less time than it takes to order a pizza. Social networks like Facebook, and Twitter, allow students to not only search and obtain correct answers but tweet them to fellow classmates on “smart” phones.
What astonished and angered me most in reading this story was not just the impact on youth whenever a high-profile athlete like Armstrong is discovered to have cheated, but when a professor – of ethics no less – justifies and rationalizes clearly illegal and unethical behavior.
What would Professor Allenby’s reaction be if he discovered that a majority of his class cheated on an exam? Would he consider it wrong, or would he merely accept that students were availing themselves of “enhancement technologies”?
Using Allenby’s logic, if 64 percent of students are cheating, then we should level the playing field for the other 36 percent! After all, it’s not really cheating; it’s simply embracing the realization that “human excellence is a product of enhancement.”
So, Did Lance Armstrong really cheat?
“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?,” Lincoln famously asked.
“FOUR! Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”
And “human excellence” doesn’t come from a banned substance in a bottle.