The Sorry-Watching of Lance Armstrong

Ooh, Australian public library burn.

Ooh, Australian public library burn.

Thanks to transcripts of nights one and two of the Oprance Apology Spectacular provided by the BBC, we now have the tools to analyze fully whether the cyclist has apologized well. Let’s crunch the numbers! Eight uses of the word “sorry,” if you’re keeping score at home; three of “apology” or “apologize.” Let’s look at each usage, using the good-apology templates enumerated in our earlier posts on the parts of a good apology and the 12th century philosopher Maimonides’s elements of apology.

To recap, psychiatrist Aaron Lazare’s definition of a good apology involves 1) saying “I’m sorry,” 2) spelling out what you’re sorry for, 3) acknowledging the effect of your actions, and (possibly, depending on how you do it) explaining why you did what you did. Maimonides says a good apology requires humility, remorse, forbearance and reparation. How does Lance score?

Night 1:

Armstrong: “I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture, and that’s my mistake, and that’s what I have to be sorry for, and that’s what something and the sport is now paying the price because of that. So I am sorry for that. I didn’t have access to anything else that nobody else did.”

SorryWatch: Wow. Armstrong’s first use of the word “sorry” in the interview is pillowed in dependent clauses and excuses. “The culture” is responsible for Armstrong’s choices; there is no ownership. Maimonides’ essential element of remorse is absent. After saying he’s sorry for “that,” (and what is “that”? “that” is apparently the fact that he didn’t try to fix a broken system rather than the fact that he lied repeatedly, cheated and actively destroyed other people’s lives), Armstrong adds, “I didn’t have access to anything that nobody else did” — implying that the playing field was still level despite his cheating. Not a good apology. When Oprah quite logically goes on to ask him to clarify what this nebulous “culture” was, Armstrong deflects:

Armstrong: “They are my mistakes, and I am sitting here today to acknowledge that and to say I’m sorry for that. The culture was what it was.”

SorryWatch: Way to non-answer. And the phrasing “I am sitting here today to acknowledge that” is odd, indicating that Armstrong views the sitting as a means to an end; he seems to think that “acknowledgement” and saying the words “I’m sorry” will allow his life to proceed as before. (And in a way that gets his lifetime ban lifted and allows him to compete in other sports, which is purportedly his reason for acknowledging past cheating.) As Susan pointed out in that parts of a good apology post, truly showing contrition involves significantly more work.

Later in the interview, Oprah points out that whenever journalists, fellow cyclists and cyclists’ family members pointed out that Armstrong cheated or lied, Armstrong went on the attack, often suing them despite knowing they were telling the truth. “What is that?” Oprah asked, with the nebulousness of the demonstrative adjective allowing Armstrong all kinds of interpretive leeway.

Armstrong: “When I hear that there are people who will never believe me I understand that. One of the steps of this process is to say sorry. I was wrong, you were right.”

SorryWatch: Armstrong deploys his own demonstrative adjective: “This process.” What process are we talking about? The process of getting reinstated to compete, or the process of actually doing reparation? Armstrong opts not to discuss the lives he ruined — when Oprah asks directly whether he’s apologized to Betsy Andreu, the wife of a teammate (and former friend) who was in the room when Armstrong discussed his performance-enhancing drug use, twice, and later testified against him and found herself and her husband on the receiving end of Armstrong’s vindictiveness and wrath, Armstrong says only:

Armstrong: “I’m not going to take that on. I’m laying down on that one. I’m going to put that one down. She asked me, and I asked her not to talk about it.”

SorryWatch: The backstory: After Andreu testified about the conversation she’d heard Armstrong have with his cancer docs in 1996 (and another in which she was present as Armstrong accepted a drug delivery), Armstrong went after her and her husband, his former good friend, with guns a-blazing. Armstrong impugned Andreu’s mental health. He and/or his supporters destroyed her husband’s career (two, actually: first in cycling, later in broadcasting) and the couple was physically threatened. And then Armstrong can only say, “She asked me, and I asked her not to talk about it”? WHAT? Andreu explicitly asked Armstrong to discuss the hospital incident with Oprah. (“I hope he admits that the hospital room happened,” she told the Orange County Register. “Lance has one shot at the truth. I hope he doesn’t blow it. He has to tell the whole unadulterated truth. Not a partial truth.”) But Armstrong goes on to tell Oprah that he and the Andreus have not made peace (“because they’ve been hurt too badly, and a 40-minute conversation isn’t enough”) without saying he had the chance to help make peace and chose not to take it.

Oprah then asks about a masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, who discussed Armstrong back-dating certain prescriptions. Armstrong now acknowledges that O’Reilly had been telling the truth. “Emma O’Reilly is one of these people I have to apologize to,” Armstrong acknowledges. “We ran over her, we bullied her.” Oprah pushes him: “You sued her?”

Armstrong: “To be honest, Oprah, we sued so many people I don’t even [know]. I’m sure we did.”

SorryWatch: So contrite! (That was sarcasm.) There is no “we” in a good apology; there is “I.” Own it. And to say he doesn’t even know all the people he sued is not an excuse for wrongfully suing them. Even more key, Armstrong should not have gone on TV before apologizing, in person or on the phone, to O’Reilly and all the other people he’d wronged. Granted, we’re talking huge list. But like the Baptist church that refused to let a black couple get married there, and apologized publicly before apologizing to the couple themselves, uh, no: Do the personal work before the performance, for heaven’s sake. Especially since you called someone an alcoholic and a prostitute after asking her to do drug runs for you; you implicitly and explicitly asked her to cover up for you; and she waited to speak out until after another cyclist died of a drug overdose. So this apology is kinda inadequate. (Understatement!)

Night 2:

Armstrong: “Do I have remorse? Absolutely. Will it grow? Absolutely. This is the first step and these are my actions. I am paying the price but I deserve it.”

SorryWatch: Wait, explain why it will grow? Why don’t you already feel completely remorseful now? Are you planning on doing additional terrible things so you can feel more remorseful for them? And newsflash, a good apology does not involve adding “I’m paying the price.” If you believe you did wrong, it’s bad form to point out that you’re being punished for it.

Armstrong: “I’d apologise to David [Walsh, the reporter Armstrong constantly called “The Little Troll,” who’d been reporting about his lies for years]. I’ve had a couple of these conversations.”

SorryWatch: You would apologize, or you did? (Walsh tweeted that he accepted, but did not believe, Armstrong’s apology on Oprah. He added that he didn’t think Armstrong had fully come clean. Walsh’s newspaper, the UK Sunday Times, is suing Armstrong for about $1.7 million US — the cost of a $300K libel settlement plus interest the paper had to pay for running a story Armstrong now acknowledges was true.)

Armstrong (asked what he would say to his fans): “I understand your anger, your sense of betrayal. You supported me forever, through all of this and you believed and I lied to you and I’m sorry. I will spend – and I’m committed to spending – as long as I have to make amends knowing full well that I won’t get very many back.”

SorryWatch: Absolutely fine, until that last phrase. Dude, it is not about what you get. You do it even if you get NO fans back. You do it because you did heinous things and what non-sociopaths do is apologize. When Oprah cleverly asked “Are you in a space where you’re not apologizing but you can begin to feel how you shattered other people’s lives?” Armstrong leaped:

Armstrong: “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I don’t need to be back in that place where I can slip like that and take things for granted and abuse privilege. If I had one of my kids act like that, I’d be apoplectic.”

SorryWatch: WHERE YOU’RE NOT APOLOGIZING?! Armstrong should have jumped to say that he was apologizing, that he had apologized in person and on the phone, and that he would continue to make amends. Instead, he affirmed Oprah’s statement. (And “yeah, yeah, yeah” is about as animated as Armstrong got during two days of interviews.) As a parenting columnist, I’m particularly saddened by his statement that if his kids did what he did, he’d be apoplectic. Parents are role models. You might say Armstrong follows the classic “You, all right?! I learned it by watching you!” school of “do as I say, not as I do” PSA-cliche parenting, except we don’t whether Armstrong ever told his kids not to abuse privilege.

Armstrong: “I’m deeply sorry for what I did. I can say that thousands of times. It may never be enough to come back.”

SorryWatch: Again, the point of apologizing is not “to come back.” It’s to look back. It’s to reflect on the harm you did and fix it as best you can. But refusing to talk specifics about lies, lawsuits, threats, intimidation and drug deals doesn’t bode well for Armstrong’s sincerity. It indicates that the apology (“I can say it thousands of times”) is a means to an end (“It may never be enough to come back”).

In conclusion: To circle back to the elements of apology: Armstrong fulfilled the requirement of saying “I’m sorry,” though he didn’t necessarily do it (or do it sincerely and fully) to the individuals he wronged as well as to the public. In particularly because of the Andreu evidence, we must say he failed on that elemental front. He did not spell out what he was sorry for or acknowledge the effect of his actions. His explanations for why he lied and cheated amounted to “everyone does it” — not good. He does not offer Maimonides’ humility or remorse. But Maimonides believes you must show forbearance for those reluctant to forgive you; let’s give Armstrong that one. (We are givers.) Maimonides also says you need to make reparation — Armstrong may make financial reparation, but it seems he won’t make emotional reparation. I’d say this makes him one for eight elements of apology. Crap score. Maybe he would have done better on steroids.

[Finally, an editorial note: As an outsider to this story, I came to it with the perspective that biking is a sport in which everyone does dope and everyone does cheat. Reading about it a lot more to write this post, I don’t necessarily think that’s true. We got that perspective in large part because of men like Armstrong. Every time they get caught, the excuse is “it’s the culture” and “everyone does it.” But both Andreu and Walsh fervently say that not everyone does it. (Walsh goes further and says that the fact that lots of people do it is because of Armstrong:  In his role as team leader when the sport was at a crossroads in ’99, he pressured his team to take performance-enhancing drugs at a time when it was not as widespread as today.)  As Andreu put it: “I can’t stress enough – not everyone dopes. That’s pure BS to soften the blow of this saga. Lance was co-owner of the team he rode on and expected those who wanted to be on his winning Tour teams to be part of his program. No one should ever have to dope to be a pro cyclist.”]

And now I’d like Armstrong and his lousy apologies to go away, and never to address them again on this blog. Unless it’s to report on him meeting with the Andreus and groveling as furiously as he once pedaled.





This entry was posted in Bad Apologies, Media Apologies, Sports Apologies, The Mechanics of Apology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Sorry-Watching of Lance Armstrong

  1. Pingback: Lance Armstrong SorryWatch

  2. Laurie M says:

    Awesome! I wanted Oprah to reach over and shake Lance and then tell him she would need to say sorry some day.

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