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Holly Swanson | Media Gone Wrong: Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno

by on January 15, 2013 11:40 PM

So here’s what I don’t understand. You have two men, Joe Paterno and Lance Armstrong, both of whom reached the highest levels of their respective careers. They were the figureheads of their field and had a love-hate relationship with the members of the media who covered them.

Then they were both knocked off their proverbial thrones.

Their cases are entirely different. Armstrong, winner of seven Tour de France titles, became one of the most recognizable faces in the country because of LiveStrong, the foundation he started after his successful battle with testicular cancer. He was hailed by many as a hero for what he did both on a bike and for the cancer awareness kingdom that he built.

But in recent years, Armstrong has been accused of doping. The lengthy report released last fall by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency contains evidence of money-trails to physicians who were known suppliers of banned substances and eyewitness testimonies from former teammates and colleagues. There is also a story about an ill-timed visit by drug-testers from World Cycling. When they were spotted, an assistant smuggled a saline infusion to Armstrong that lowered his hematocrit levels, which would otherwise raise a red flag on the testing report.

This isn’t just a case of a team physician giving Armstrong a Vitamin C shot — wink, wink — so Armstrong could just say, “Honest, I just thought they were vitamins.”

Instead, what we have found out is much more damning. If the report is to be believed, and let’s believe it for now since it’s been corroborated by dozens of witnesses and has been widely reported that Armstrong will admit the doping in an interview with Oprah later this week, Armstrong wasn’t just a participant who doped sometimes — he was the actual gang leader, the one who made sure enough medications were available and that everyone was using them. He’s the one who developed a complicated delivery system to outsmart the testers on the Tour and other events.

He is a liar, a phony, and a cheat.

And then there is Paterno. A college football coach who did everything by the book, who had the highest graduation rate among his players, who won two national championships, who set the record for the most career wins. But, as it turns out, he had a monster on his staff, someone who used his connection to the football team to procure young victims for his own sick proclivities.

The readers of these pages already know plenty about the Freeh Report and my thoughts on it, but to recap, there is no evidence that Paterno knew anything illegal was going on, especially since a law enforcement investigation decided not to bring charges against Sandusky in 1998. When he found out about the 2001 incident, he made sure it was handled by the appropriate people.

But the national media read the evidence differently.

“Joe Paterno was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now. He was also a cover-up artist … What’s not forgivable is his sustained determination to lie from 2001 onward.” These are the words Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins used to describe Paterno after the Freeh report came out. As for Armstrong, she said “[T]hough I hoped he was clean, it’s simply not shocking or enraging to learn that he was like all the other cyclists who sought a medical advantage in riding up the faces of mountains.”

So, Jenkins believes it is OK to cheat, as long as everyone else is doing it.

The media responses to both Paterno and Armstrong are sadly fascinating to watch. There are many other well-known writers who share the same ideology as Jenkins. Buzz Bissinger, who writes for The Daily Beast and has made a name for himself by Paterno-bashing, had this to say about Armstrong: “But even if he did take enhancers, so what?” Nevermind that Armstrong willfully ignored cycling’s anti-doping rules and was playing a dangerous game that may have harmed his health and those around him simply so he could pedal a bike faster. So what?

But to Bissinger, Paterno has become the embodiment of evil. “Joe Paterno was the dictator of Penn State. He wasn’t the man who simply didn’t do enough when confronted with a sickening allegation. Add the word ‘liar’ to his legacy.”

ESPN columnist Rick Reilly, basing his opinion on the Freeh Report, said that Paterno knew about the 1998 incident and lied about it to the grand jury. Reilly wrote in July that “[h]e let a rapist go to save his own recruiting successes and fundraising pitches and big-fish-small-pond hide.”

Reilly on Armstrong? “So Lance Armstrong may have cheated, just like everybody else. Or maybe he gave up the fight because the whole thing was more crooked than San Francisco's Lombard Street. After all, USADA convicted him on hearsay, not proof.”

I suspect that a lot of this posturing occurs because journalists can benefit from Armstrong. Jenkins can still write more books about Armstrong after working on his first two. It’s also possible that Armstrong will rise from this scandal, get himself back on top somehow, and the Rick Reillys and Buzz Bissingers will be there to write about it.

Paterno is dead. There are no more exclusives to get. It is easy to attack someone when their full story will never be heard. They blamed Paterno based on a lot of speculation and one vague email that may or may not have been about him.

The problem is that Armstrong built his career by cheating. I don’t care if everyone did it. That just means that he was the best at cheating. But the media’s ability to dictate the story is a detriment to the sports and culture that it covers.

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Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at hollyannswanson@verizon.net.
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