Commentary

Floyd Landis: The moral of the story

We give elite athletes, our heroes, the benefit of the doubt when we shouldn't

Updated: May 25, 2010, 1:10 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

We believe, as a nation, that every car salesman is trying to screw us over. We believe our politicians sell out to line their pockets and protect special interests. We believe Wall Street bankers would short their mothers if it meant they could add a Sub-Zero to the pool house this summer.

So why do we expect our athletes to be moral?

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Jim Spellman/Getty ImagesFloyd Landis' defense, which we now know for certain was a lie, included the book "Positively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France."

It's the most amazing thing. We're so cynical and negative when it comes to the rest of the world -- we won't even answer the damned phone if we don't immediately recognize the number -- but those skeptical parts of our brains get turned off when it comes to athletes. They get every benefit of the doubt.

Against all available evidence, we want to believe in the muscle-bound home run hitter with the chubby son who greets him at home plate. We want to believe in the cyclist who overcomes cancer and gives everyone the feel-good idea to wear yellow bracelets and contribute to a cure.

This is the subtext for the vilification of Floyd Landis. He's an easy target, the same way Jose Canseco was an easy target. He's grinding an ax, and he won't stop until all that remains is a few shards of metal. He's a rat, as well as a proven and published liar. He'd have a hard time finding a character witness.

He cheated. He admits as much now, and we'd all be fine if he said that and left it at that. But consider this: We have no problem understanding that a broker who deals in subprime mortgages got rich giving money to people he knows have no chance of paying it back. It's simply greed, history's oldest tale. Then why do we have a problem understanding that an athlete can possess the same base human instincts when his version of greed (cheating to win) promises him millions as well?

Cycling is a traveling pharmacy. History proves that. There has never been a time in the past 30 years when the sport's biggest event -- the Tour de France -- wasn't dogged by doping and performance-enhancing drug allegations. Landis trained forever to get his chance to be in the Tour spotlight, and now he says he doped when he was helping Lance Armstrong win and he doped when he won it himself.

Nobody really cares about cycling in the U.S. unless it's about Armstrong. He's either winning or retiring or coming back. Or he's being accused of consorting with a doctor with a tainted reputation (Dr. Michele Ferrari) or accused of confessing to doping (Betsy Andreu) or accused of doping (Landis). Other than that, nobody really cares. Cycling is like a volcano that way -- nobody writes stories when it doesn't erupt.

I've spent time with both Landis and Armstrong -- Armstrong way back before he won his first Tour, Landis in the spring of 2006 before he won his -- and I don't know whether Landis is telling the truth this time around or not. However, I'd have to say this version sounds a lot more plausible than any of his denials. And I don't know anything about what Armstrong puts in his body, but I do know this: If the guys who were helping him win were doping to do it, it's not out of the question that he was, too.

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Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSmaller, slower, weaker, more natural just doesn't have the same ring as what fans have come to expect from stars.

(Weird thing: When I was interviewing Armstrong, I was a couple of months away from riding my first -- and, to this point, only -- century. When I asked him for his advice, he said, "Take a caffeine pill every 15 or 20 miles." That answer always stuck with me.)

The entire debate needs to be reframed. It's easy to dismiss Landis; he defrauded a lot of people who gave money for his defense under the misguided belief that he was telling the truth when he claimed victimization. But the demands on a pro cyclist -- especially one who is expected to win the Tour de France -- are essentially inhuman. If the cycling world wants to clean up the sport, it can start by reducing the Tour's mileage by about 30 percent and adding a couple of days off to provide some legitimate rest.

Same with the NFL. If it cleaned up its PED problem, it might have to get used to a much slower and smaller game. You can't call a 295-pound human "undersized" and expect a college offensive tackle with pro aspirations to stop bulking up when nature refuses to allow his body to get above 290. The problem is, nobody is going to be as excited about an NFL that no longer has 265-pound linebackers who run a 4.4 40. When the 265-pounders once again become offensive guards who run a 4.9, are you going to care as much? My guess is you've been spoiled by the hormone behemoths and won't settle for much less.

We don't want to believe anything bad because it would reflect poorly on us. We don't want to diminish the yellow band. We don't have an emotional investment in the local car dealership, but we do in our favorite teams and athletes.

But the world is the world. Athletes are every bit as selfish and greedy as anyone else -- maybe more so. They're incredibly narcissistic on top of it. No matter the truth, the yellow rubber band can still mean something.

Going back to the banking analogy, here's what I think: Floyd Landis was over-leveraged. He'd made his bet and fought it to the death. His lies were both numerous and preposterous, and in the end he just couldn't continue to pay the note. He foreclosed, and he's trying to take the whole neighborhood with him.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com