Home Sociology Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma
The novelist Frederick Weisel reflects:
Aren’t autobiographies born in a question we ask ourselves: how did I get to this point? Don’t we look back over the path and tell ourselves a story? This is how it happened. This is who I am. (Weisel, 2011: 11)
This introspective process of reflection is undoubtedly a key element of self-narratives, a means to make sense of our own lives by rendering them as stories in which events, experiences, accidents and choices explain ‘how we got here’. However, beyond this psychological character, autobiographies also have a powerful public and communicative dimension - they are a means to help others make sense of who we are, and hence how those others should understand us, receive us, judge us and treat us. The sharing of self-narratives is central to the fabric of social life, and inextricable from the formation of our identities. These acts of social story-telling take on a particular kind of urgency when the narrator is one who has come to be seen by others in distinctly unfavourable ways - those who are in some sense stigmatised by past actions and associations which lead others to view them in a negative light. The core idea behind this present study is that, for those who have come to be labelled as criminal and deviant, autobiographical self-narration becomes an avenue for challenging stigma by telling stories - stories that might redefine a self that has been publicly mortified, with an experience of all the attendant emotions of regret, humiliation and shame. For those who have been widely celebrated as ‘heroes’ and ‘stars’, the suffering of such disgrace is especially intense and relentless, and their efforts to explain, excuse or somehow justify their transgressions is played for high stakes on a public stage. I hope that this study, with its focus on ‘fallen sports stars’, offers some insights into a set of wider inter-related issues - the place of storytelling in the making of the public self; the narrative strategies people use for the management of stigma; the cultural importance now accorded to sports and sportspeople; and the nature of celebrity in the contemporary world of global multi-mediated representation.
Academic studies of the present sort tend to render the self of the author largely invisible. Typically, a very limited narrative about that self may be offered in the form of a short ‘biographical note’ that focuses upon the professional identity and past accomplishments of the author. However, in a book about self-narratives, perhaps a small autobiographical digression may be acceptable in the context of a Preface. This work represents both continuity and discontinuity with my past endeavours as a researcher and writer. On the one hand, it extends my long-standing interest in the construction of crime and deviance in popular culture and mass media; on the other, it takes a new departure in terms of its focus upon autobiographical narratives, sport and their intersection with criminological research about ‘desistance’ and ‘reform’. The inspiration for the study lies in a seemingly accidental experience. It was conceived during a period of extended illness, during which I found myself unable to work. During this period (which lasted many months), one stratagem for occupying my time was to watch televised sports coverage - the sport didn’t matter so much as the structure that spectatorship provided to my otherwise unstructured days, not to mention its capacity to distract me temporarily from more serious and troubling concerns. Three weeks of this daily diet was provided by the Tour de France, a sequence of gruelling day-long stages of cycling, taking its competitors to the brink of exhaustion (and sometimes beyond) as they traversed the towns, cities and mountains of France. I was aware beforehand, in a general sense, of the doping scandals that had repeatedly hit the sport, not least the recent and widely publicised fall from grace of its most famous star, Lance Armstrong. One thing, as they say, led to another, and I started to explore the stories of sports stars disgraced through their exposure for use of illicit and illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Their selfnarratives struck me as rich in sociological and criminological themes - about self-presentation, celebrity, fame, criminal and deviant behaviour, stigma, shame and redemption. On subsequent reflection (of the kind noted by Weisel above) it seems to me that my interest in this topic was in fact more than simple serendipity. Rather, the experience of serious illness brings with it also a loss of self and identity, and attendant worries about one’s public status and standing. Perhaps this experience, very different but in some sense analogous to the dramatic disruption-of-self experienced by the socially stigmatised and ‘discredited, explains why and how this study came into being. Whether or not this autobiographical resonance has served to make the book any better or more persuasive than it might otherwise have been remains an open question; it has, however, contributed significantly to my interest in the topic, and opened up new avenues of research for me to pursue into the future. Truisms to the effect that ‘good things can come of adversity’ may have some relevance here, and can perhaps be added in due course to my own self-narrative.
A final few words of autobiographical reference are warranted, in the form of acknowledgements. For the friends and colleagues who offered support, reassurance and encouragement through illness and convalescence, I wish to express my deep sense of gratitude; I value their warmth and compassion more than they know. Most especially, however, I wish to thank my wife Rodanthi, whose love, support and patience make all the difference - not to mention her acuity as an academic interlocutor and collaborator. As is becoming something of a habit, this book is dedicated to her.
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