Home Sociology Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma
Abstract: This chapter explores the ‘commitment stage’ of disgraced athletes’ self-narratives - this phase centres upon the active choice to start, and then persist, doping. We see the deployment of neutralisation techniques that seek to minimise the athletes’ agency, displacing responsibility onto a combination of compelling circumstances, peer pressures and inducements, and manipulation by other, more powerfully placed actors. The ‘denial of responsibility’ and the ‘appeal to higher loyalties’ are used to insulate the narrators from stigma.
Yar, Majid. Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. doi: 10.1057/9781137403759.0008.
In the previous chapter, we explored how fallen sports stars narrate their induction into doping - how they made the transition from ‘clean and honest’ athletes to the point where doping seemed not only inevitable, but also in some sense excusable. Particular emphasis is placed in the narratives upon how ‘racing clean’ made it impossible to win. The experience of being repeatedly defeated by ‘dopers’ is conveyed in a language of powerful negative emotions - of suffering, being crushed, being humiliated. To this sense of unfairness and victimisation are added the claims that since doping was commonplace, then opting to use PEDs was not so much a case of illegitimate cheating as a justified levelling of the terrain. The supposed normality of doping and its matter-of-fact acceptance within the culture of their teammates and peers further distances the narrator from clear-cut implication in socially proscribed deviant acts. In sum, the initiation stage draws upon the denial of injury, the denial of the victim, and the defence of necessity to challenge straightforward labels of ‘cheat’.
Following the initiation stage the narratives typically move onto what we might call the ‘commitment stage’ - this phase of the narrative centres upon the active choice to start, and then persist, in doping. Commitment to doping will provide the focus for this chapter. As with accounts of initiation, we see the deployment of neutralisation techniques that seek to minimise the athletes’ agency, displacing responsibility onto a combination of compelling circumstances, peer pressures and inducements, and manipulation by other, more powerfully placed actors. To recall Sykes and Matza’s (1957: 667) characterisation of the denial of responsibility, ‘it may ... be asserted that delinquent acts are due to forces outside of the individual and beyond his control, such as unloving parents, bad companions or a slum neighbourhood. In effect, the delinquent approaches a “billiard ball” conception of himself in which he sees himself as helplessly propelled’. Such rationalisations figure centrally in our narrators’ selfpresentations as they seek to account for their extended commitment to illicit and illegal activities.
The displacement of responsibility onto childhood problems features clearly in the accounts offered by both Chambers and Jones. As noted in Chapter 2 (Beginnings), both establish at the outset that they suffered from paternal abandonment, and this experience is now activated as an element in the denial of responsibility:
I misplaced trust in someone I believed had my best interests at heart ... I
surrounded myself with the wrong people, especially men ... One reason I believe I’ve made poor decisions ... is because of unresolved issues that date back to when I was a kid. I lived all those years of my childhood, of growing up, without a father ... I have been searching for a father figure ever since. (Jones, 2010: 32, 37)
Chambers laments that:
There are times in your life when you need a father to talk to, a father to be there for you. A father is a very important role model to a son and someone whose advice I would think carries a lot of weight. My father left me when I was still in nappies. (Chambers, 2009: 58)
I had no one, no father, and my family thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Sure I could have talked to Jonathan [Barbour, his friend and training partner] but he was not my father. (Ibid.)
It is this gap, left by the absence of a father, which a manipulative authority figures exploits:
He [Victor Conte] was an impressive, confident man and . .. I warmed to him. I trusted him ... Victor acted as a father figure and I trusted him and looked up to him that way. (Chambers, 2009: 45)
Drawing analogies between himself and child victims of sexual exploitation, Chambers asserts that:
In many ways he [Conte] was like a father figure to me. In the cold light of day I now know that in a way Remi [Korchemny - Chambers’ coach] and Victor were kind of ‘grooming’ me. (Ibid.: 57)
In contemporary understandings, the word ‘grooming’ has become inextricably linked to the cultivation of a child’s trust and affection as a prelude to sexual abuse by predatory paedophiles - the use of this term by Chambers to describe his relationship with his coach and advisor evokes a sense of malice and violation on the part of these ‘fathers’.
The regrettable investment of trust in ersatz family figures is less dramatically but nevertheless clearly expressed by Hamilton, who was (he claims) initiated into doping by team doctor Pedro Celaya. He describes the doctor and his first act of doping:
I liked Pedro immediately ... Pedro was like your favourite uncle. He looked you in the eyes; he asked how you felt; he remembered little things ... He sat down and asked me the question he always asked: How are you, Tyler? He was always so good at asking that question; he made you feel how much he cared ... he ... looked into me with those soft, sad, brown eyes ... he ... pulled out a brown glass bottle. Slowly, casually, he showed it to me, unscrewed the top ... A single capsule. A tiny red egg. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 60, 68)
A young man - confused, exhausted, disillusioned, vulnerable, and a long way from home - sitting alone on the bed of his hotel room with his ‘favourite uncle, who gives him a pill - a memorable image with disturbing undertones.
Alongside this exploitation of vulnerability, denial of responsibility is further adduced by reference to pressures placed upon the individuals by peers and others:
you have to understand that I had no one outside my circle to talk to. Those in my circle, my peers, were already on performance-enhancing substances ... the only people I could talk to were the same people encouraging me to take drugs. (Chambers, 2009: 57)
A thousand days of getting signals that doping is okay, signals from powerful people you trust and admire. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 67)
Ben Johnson (the disgraced Canadian sprinter who was stripped of his 100m gold medal at the Seoul Olympics) similarly suggests that:
Twenty five years ago I knew that other people were doping and I had the decision of whether I should do it or not. I felt like I needed to try and please people in my camp. (Johnson in Atkinson, 2013)
Marion Jones offers the most forceful and elaborated use of the denial of responsibility. In addition to rationalising her ‘poor decisions’ in terms of ‘unresolved issues’ from childhood, she goes further by insisting that she consumed PEDs unknowingly at the behest of a dishonest coach:
In September 2000, before the Olympic Games in Sydney, my coach began providing me with a substance he told me was flaxseed oil, a nutritional substance. He told me to put it under my tongue for a few seconds, then swallow ... I didn’t question anything. A fatal flaw of mine is that I’ve always been a little naive, much too trusting ... So I took the flaxseed oil. (Jones, 2010: 27-8)
But I lost it all because I did not ask questions when I should have been inquisitive, and I misplaced my trust in someone I believed had my best interests at heart. (Ibid.: 33)
Jones’ self-presentation strategy takes shape as an attempt to redefine the ‘discrediting information’ about self that underpins her public stigma.
Such adaptation in the face of stigma is what Rogers and Buffalo (1974: 111-12) call ‘modification’:
attempts to exchange the negative label for a ‘better one.’ This might be accomplished through a manipulation of name, adjective, image, or form.
Jones, through her narration, attempts to do just this - to exchange the labels of ‘liar’ and ‘cheat’ with those of ‘naive’ and ‘too trusting’. While the former attract concerted repudiation, the latter are much less morally charged and eminently more forgivable character flaws. We can suggest, however, that in this case the attempt at modification largely fails, since the discrediting information already available to the audience (including the testimony of her former husband C.J. Hunter and others such as Victor Conte) point to a knowing and deliberate use of PEDs that they claim to have personally witnessed. As Mean (2013: 77, 84) notes, even after the publication of her book,
her guilt is widely assumed, and she remains highly reviled despite seeking an elusive public redemption ... attempts to reframe Jones ... were ineffective because of widespread media framing of Victor Conte’s 2004 accusations as persuasively detailed.
However, we should not overlook the potential significance of gender in this failure to successfully modify the deviant label. The only female athlete whose account we explore in this study, her stigmatisation is clearly different from that of her male counterparts insofar femininity is used to amplify the sense of betrayal that her doping activates. Hence, alongside the use of commonplace labels such as ‘cheat’ terms such as ‘seductress’ and ‘brazen’ were deployed, and clearly draw upon popular cultural stereotypes of the femme fatale who uses her beauty and sexuality to cynically manipulate others, making her the quintessential ‘fallen woman’ of Hollywood melodrama (Mean, 2013: 84-4; Boozer, 1999; Bronfen, 2004). However, as we shall see in due course, Jones is herself not above mobilising the traditional gender stereotypes of patriarchal culture (such as vulnerability, Christian piety, motherhood, the dutiful and obedient wife - Gauntlett, 2002: 10) to re-present herself in her post-doping life.
In tandem with the denial of harm and denial of responsibility, this narrative stage culminates with an ‘appeal to higher loyalties’ (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 669):
sacrificing the demands of the larger society for the demands of the smaller social groups to which the delinquent belongs . .. the delinquent does not necessarily repudiate the imperatives of the dominant normative system, despite his failure to follow them. Rather, the delinquent may see himself as caught up in a dilemma that must be resolved, unfortunately, at the cost of violating the law.
When viewed as a communicative device used in self-presentation, the appeal to higher loyalties serves to rationalise and excuse law- and rule-breaking behaviour that the actor simultaneously acknowledges is improper and objectionable. In Rogers and Buffalo’s (1974) framework for analysing modes of ‘fighting back’ against a deviant label, this can be identified as a strategy of ‘evasion, which
refers primarily to verbal manipulation as a means of defence against the imputation of deviance. The person in response rejects the label, which is manipulated to deflect negative impact through a counterploy based perhaps on a differing view of reality, involving society, his/her deeds, victim, loyalties, responsibility, etc. (Rogers and Buffalo, 1974: 110)
For our athletes, the loyalties to which they appeal are variously related to teammates, employers, sponsors, and family:
It boiled down to professionalism ... The team needed me to accept my obligations, and now it all made sense ... I walked into that hotel room an anti-doper, I walked out of it a seasoned professional ready to do what was required of me ... I was now a professional through and through with bigger responsibilities than my own personal belief system. (Millar, 2012: 154)
I felt that the team’s existence and continuation depended on my performances. I had a loyalty to Cofidis ... [his professional cycling team] ... I’d fulfilled my professional obligations. (Ibid.: 157, 163)
This association of illicit performance enhancement with being ‘professional’ was likewise apparent in Christiansen’s (2010) interview-based study of elite Danish professional cyclists, for some of whom a willingness to dope was a distinguishing characteristic as compared to their amateur counterparts. Similar findings recur in Sefiha’s (2012: 230-2) study of professional cyclists in Belgium.
For Chambers, a different set of loyalties come to the fore of his account:
I couldn’t help but think about ... how happy my country would be, my friends and family, to see my mother’s happy face, knowing that her son was the fastest man in the world. I would be able to earn enough money so I would be able to look after my mother. It’s only right that I return the favour. She had been looking after me and my sisters all her life. (Chambers, 2009: 55)
Chambers thus represents his commitment to doping in terms of patriotic service, friendship and the filial duty of a son towards his caring mother - despite his profound misgivings, he continues not for himself, but for others. The appeal to familial obligations in rationalising doping was also found by Sefiha (2012: 230) in discussion with one of his respondents:
[he] . .. also excuses his behaviour by evoking culturally resonant themes often found in mainstream society - for example, familial obligations. By evoking mainstream rather than solely subcultural resources, ... [he] ... is able to embed his excuse in conventional and law-abiding culture.
Representing involvement in doping as an act of ‘professionalism, ‘loyalty, ‘responsibility’ and such like serves to rhetorically reverse the culturally dominant depiction of ‘cheats’ - far from being selfish or self- regarding, the individual is in fact sacrificing himself in a selfless and other-regarding manner. Moreover, as Millar claims, such responsibilities are seemingly discharged despite one’s own belief system that supposedly remains consistent with dominant norms about honesty and fairness. As with the representations of being ‘clean and honest’ that appear in the ‘Beginnings’ stage, this form of reasoning attempts to demarcate a core social self that is (deviant actions notwithstanding) fundamentally moral and hence socially acceptable.
A further representational device for managing the deviant label is apparent in the narrator’s propensity to draw distinctions between themselves and others (the ‘dopers’). While the authors may do what others do, they do not like it - their own actions are undertaken with the greatest reluctance under the force of compelling circumstance. Others in contrast are depicted as being at ease with doping, having embraced its values and so appear to suffer little or nothing in the way of reservations or moral qualms:
In their world, it had nothing to do with ethics, or what was right and wrong, and certainly had nothing to do with cheating. It was simply medical preparation. (Millar, 2012: 93)
Lance [Armstrong] pointed casually to the fridge. I opened it and there, on the door, next to a carton of milk, was a carton of EPO, each stoppered vial standing upright, little soldiers in their cardboard cells. I was surprised that Lance was so cavalier ... But Lance seemed relaxed about it. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 109)
In contrast to their peers, the narrators depict their own relationship to doping as one of intense suffering and emotional and psychological attrition:
I was weary, too weary to fight any more. All that resistance - all the fighting I’d been doing, all the idealism that at first came so naturally and had slowly grown into a futile and isolating stance ... I was ashamed ... my guilt over my deception crowded in on me so then I’d launch into another bender, in a desperate effort to forget what I’d done. (Millar, 2012: 154, 169)
I had lost all respect for myself ... guilt, fear, anxiety. (Chambers, 2009: 118)
I couldn’t handle the torment, lies, secrecy. (Ibid.: 120)
Deep down I was ashamed. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 248)
Once again, we should note the use of contrasting adjectives to describe the self as compared to its deviant peers. Others are ‘casual, ‘relaxed’ and ‘cavalier’ about doping; in stark contrast, the narrators are ‘tormented, ‘ashamed, ‘guilty, ‘anxious’ and ‘fearful, Such professions serve as retroactive assurances that despite participation in criminal and deviant behaviour, the individual remains in principle redeemable, possessing an uncontaminated core to the self. They may have acted as others did, but they were different in their enduring awareness of ‘right’ and ‘wrong, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In other words, the capacity to suffer shameful emotions acts as a signal that the authors have retained their moral compass and commitment to the norms and values that are shared by their audience. As John Braithwaite (1989) has influentially argued, such public expressions of shame are a vital element of ‘degradation ceremonies’ that can result in forgiveness of offenders and their re-admittance to the normal social order; the articulation of shame by our narrators can be viewed as part of a plea for ultimately escaping the stigmatising label that they have acquired.
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