At least Lance Armstrong has his health. He kicked cancer’s ass, but there otherwise isn’t much silver in the lining through which so many others are being sucked. As Armstrong is stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after losing lucrative sponsorships and even his perch atop LIVESTRONG, I wonder what you tell the kids who defied the Charles Barkley maxim (“I’m not a role model”) and adopted an utterly human, and therefore unfailingly imperfect, sports figure as a hero. Because I’m a sportswriter, I’m mainly pondering one of the best of us, Sally Jenkins, whose role in diversifying one of the last of the holy male sanctums – the locker room – qualifies her for pioneer status.
Jenkins is a sports columnist for the Washington Post who has written for Sports Illustrated, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and occupied the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best seller list. She also closely hitched her star to Armstrong’s by penning with him two books, “Every Second Counts” and “Not About the Bike.” I wonder if she consequently will—and should—be sucked into the draft of Armstrong’s nosedive. Because of Jenkins, we knew more about Armstrong than most athletes of his stature. Readers gained this perspective because Jenkins made a deal as old as her craft: access in exchange for a blind eye, either permanent or occasional.
This isn’t to claim that Jenkins knew the truth about Armstrong’s alleged doping activities. But, at the very least, she was in a position to view flags which were red as the blood Armstrong was supposed to be altering. Was Jenkins therefore obligated to employ more skepticism while sketching such overwhelmingly flattering pictures of Armstrong?
I’ve never been comfortable with the tidal wave of autobiographies penned by journalists who might have to cover the subject of their collaborations in the future. As a columnist expected to comment on the prevailing sports issues of the day, Jenkins clearly was in this camp. Her books with Armstrong were published in the midst of his biggest successes and, as it turns out, near the height of his alleged illicit activities. Armstrong won two Tour de France titles after the second book was published and the clouds of rumored doping were flourishing in earnest, at least in Europe. Jenkins could have recused herself from Armstrong-related columns, but people recognized her as such an expert on the famed cyclist, many wanted her take. Jenkins provided one on Aug. 24, after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency leveled its initial doping accusations against Armstrong. She could have limited herself to commenting on the man to whom she was exposed, even mentioned his maintained innocence and her lack of knowledge about its veracity. Instead, she attacked the USADA and the system, providing a quasi-defense of her co-author. That column breached an ethical demarcation.
While covering the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics as a beat writer for nearly two decades, I witnessed all sorts of activities, running the gamut from frowned upon to illegal. The worst of them I pursued as stories, but was road-blocked by my inability to uncover any named corroboration. I kept the overwhelming majority of those activities to myself and will go to my grave with huge secrets. I know there are absolutists in this world, and they would argue that any breach of the law or public ethic is relevant and actionable. But life, of course, is contextual, and any self-respecting journalist views things through that filter.
For much of my career, writers who regularly covered professional sports teams were allowed to share the team’s modes of transportation and discounted lodging. Managers would retrieve your luggage and have it delivered to your room. We were even allowed to watch practices. In essence, we lived with our subjects for as much as 10 months out of the year. This kind of access carried with it an implied agreement for a journalistic blind eye. The argument was, if not for the team allowing you to be there, you wouldn’t have been in a position to be aware of all the eye-popping things that you witnessed.
That kind of access also nurtured close relationships with players and coaches. Occasionally someone would confess something over a beer—“as boys”—that he never expected to appear in print. I never was tempted by such occurrences because, for one thing, the setting clearly was not professional—an interview was not being conducted. Also, one’s ability to keep such secrets often turned into currency to be exchanged for other, bigger stories. I would argue that one of my main assets as a reporter covering the Sonics was my relationships with players, allowing me to tell stories that otherwise would have eluded me. Once, for example, Vincent Askew made a ship-to-shore call from his honeymoon to inform me that he was about to be traded by the Sonics. Some would say that I should have reported every time Askew was angry enough to “demand” a trade, but I believe not doing so allowed me to be the first to report when he actually was.
Conversely, when I tried to school one of my successors about the give and take of a sports beat, he rejected the whole line of thinking. He subsequently wrote about events he witnessed in assumed sanctuaries like the team bus or hotel, and the Sonics withdrew access to all travel niceties for all reporters covering them. It was one of the first dominoes to tumble in what would become a tidal wave of similar stances by teams in every sport. The result, I would argue, is a chasm between athletes and the public that has never been wider. Now, much of what we think we know about sports figures is so spun, we’d be stricken with vertigo if we actually were aware of how it came to light.
Relevance is what ushers the sportswriter-athlete relationship into the extreme gray. If Jenkins had witnessed Armstrong, say, picking his nose, that action had no bearing on his status as an athlete or human being, so its omission in a story or book seems eminently permissible. I once saw a strange woman emerge from a hotel room as I arrived for an early morning interview. The interviewee quickly said, “That’s off the record.” I kept it that way, and still was able to write a somewhat critical piece about a high-profile subject, although an editor might have argued that I’d have had a saucier story with the detail. Similarly, I once was out late in Phoenix with Gary Payton of the Sonics and both Salt and Pepa from the famous soul duo. The Sonics played a nationally televised game early the following afternoon. I didn’t mention the previous night’s hijinks in my game story, but a P-I columnist wrote about it days later. My editor called me into her office and said, “I know you were probably there.” The Sonics lost, but Payton had a fabulous game, so I didn’t believe what he did the night before was relevant. My editor accepted the explanation.
It may grate some people that journalists appear to have license to act as judge and jury. And yet others may believe they have “the right” to know everything about athletes because fans “pay their salaries” by purchasing tickets. But, until the recent rise of Web-fueled haterism, the writer-athlete partnership has pretty closely reflected the mores of society. People long have preferred their heroes not be felled. If the public wants access to those who inspire or titillate, the price of an acceptably blind eye may be one that cannot be refused.
By extension, Sally Jenkins has accomplished too much to be dragged down by Lance Armstrong, who did so much bad to offset so much good. She was just a partner in telling his story, not an accomplice to his misdeeds.