Commentary

Is millions in charity a fair price for forgiveness?

Updated: August 2, 2007, 11:46 AM ET
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

We're hearing a lot about records and cheating this summer, what with Barry Bonds' chase and a Tour de Farce that has lost, among others, its leader, its most popular rider and two whole teams. But a recent headline in USA Today made me put my moralizing on hold. It read: "Armstrong Wristbands Yield $63M."

Lance Armstrong
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Lance Armstrong Foundation and Nike have reportedly sold more than 70 million of the yellow Livestrong wristbands since the program began in 2004, raising $63 million for cancer research and programs.

Lance Armstrong has recently had to defend himself against charges made by David Walsh in his book "From Lance to Landis." Walsh suggests Lance used banned drugs to win his seven Tours, and Lance has fired back by calling Walsh a hack who recycles bogus stories. But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that every word of the book is true. The dueling images of Lance as doper and as philanthropist raise an inconvenient question: Can cheating be forgiven if it serves a higher purpose?

Lance had won just two Tour de France stages and was still years from becoming an all-American hero when his stage III cancer was diagnosed in 1996. The illness altered his perspective. "When I was sick, I saw more beauty and triumph and truth in a single day than I ever did in a bike race," he wrote in his book, "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life." Those words, disarmingly plain and painful, have given hope to a lot of people.

Cancer awareness is Armstrong's stage now. Even if I had the cojones to walk into a pediatric cancer ward with a report that suggested Lance had used EPO or blood doping to win, I'm not sure it would matter to the kids there. And I'm not sure I'd want it to.

Maybe there's a parking lot by the pearly gates where cheaters tailgate. There, the Big Referee tips his cap and says, "Well, you screwed your fans, but you helped little Johnny. You may enter." That doesn't make it any easier for us mortals, who have to struggle to find morality in an era in which everyone seems to cheat. How much redemption should we demand?

Lance is doing for cancer research what Al Gore has done for global warming. He's about to host forums for presidential hopefuls on the disease, and his foundation is the largest of all sports charities. On the dailypeloton.com forums, admirers admit to keeping their fingers crossed for the doping charges to stay unproved. "I hope a smoking gun never shows up," one poster writes. "My family has been greatly affected by cancer and inspired by Lance's accomplishments. And I'm amazed at the ubiquity of the yellow wristbands. I saw a guy getting arrested on TV yesterday and noticed that both the policemen and criminal were wearing [them]."

Lance built this house of hope. If it ever falls, if people who have put their faith in him are made to feel foolish, he'll be forced to suffer in his own way. Until then, many of us will look the other way.

And then there is Bonds. You may not know this about Lance, but Barry is his clone: surly, self-involved, tainted. But Barry's story hasn't been able to transcend his prickly personality. There was one moment late in the 2003 season when it almost did.

As the Giants closed out the season and prepared for the playoffs, Barry left to grieve for his father, Bobby, who had just died of lung cancer and a brain tumor. In his first game back, Barry went deep against the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson, giving the Giants an emotional win. He was so overcome that he was admitted to the hospital a day later with exhaustion. For a brief time, Barry knew what it was like to have America on his side. Compare that to the way he's treated at any game he plays outside San Francisco these days.

But if he had invited us into his world as he mourned, maybe written a book about family that touched hearts, might we feel different now? If he had spent time raising money for lung cancer research, would we be cheering instead of booing? Our answers to these questions aren't about Barry, of course, but about us. We are willing to forgive our cheaters because the finality of forgiveness is preferable to walking around in an ethical cloud.

All we ask is that our cheaters give us a reason to forgive. Lance was given a lifeline once, and now he extends it to others. Barry never felt compelled to make us feel better. I don't know if the comparison is unfair to him or too fair to Lance. As long as asterisks are popping up all over, maybe we need to introduce a second one, a "Yeah, but ..." to follow the first "Yeah, but ..."

Because in this era of cheating, every asterisk cannot be judged in the same way.

Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"