Abstract: This chapter explores a pivotal moment in disgraced athletes’ narratives, namely their public exposure for using performance-enhancing drugs and their consequent acquisition of stigmatising labels. As discrediting information becomes public knowledge, the athletes acquire a ‘spoiled identity’ that undermines their presentation of self. Amidst expressions of contrition and regret, we see the use of neutralisation techniques as stigma-management strategies, especially a ‘condemnation of the condemners’ that seeks to deflect blame onto other responsible parties.
Yar, Majid. Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. doi: 10.1057/9781137403759.0009.
In the preceding chapter, we explored how our sports stars account for their commitment to use of illicit performance-enhancing substances, and in doing so mobilise various rationalisations to excuse their deviant behaviour, including especially the denial of responsibility and the appeal to higher loyalties. The deviant label of ‘doper’ is resisted or modified by stressing the manifold external pressures and forces that bore down upon them (spanning isolation and vulnerability arising from childhood problems; through pressure from peers, coaches and team leaders; to the necessity for professional survival) and by alluding to a sense of professionalism and responsibility to others. The athletes stress the reluctant nature of their participation in activities that they knew to be ‘wrong, and as a consequence of which they suffer mental and emotional turmoil and feelings of guilt and shame. In this chapter, we move on to explore the next pivotal moment in their narratives, namely their public exposure for using PEDs and their consequent acquisition of stigmatising labels.
Until this point in the narrative, the transgressions associated with doping have remained a closely guarded secret, known only to those complicit in the practices (teammates, coaches, doctors and partners). As such, stigmatising labels have been avoided through a careful process of information management. In Goffman’s terms, the individual is at this point only ‘discreditable’:
when his differentness is not immediately apparent, and is not known beforehand ... the issue is ... that of managing information about his failing. To display or not to display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where. (Goffman, 1968: 57)
All our narrators describe the many and varied strategies they called upon in order to hide the information from wider view that would lead to discrediting:
First I soaked the outer cardboard packaging in water until it was unreadable, then I tore it up into tiny pieces and flushed it down the toilet. Then I used my thumbnails to peel the sticky labels off the glass EPO vials ... and flushed the labels as well. Then I wrapped the whole thing in tinfoil and put it at the back of the fridge, behind a pile of vegetables. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 141) When a vial was empty I’d wrap it in several layers of paper towel . .. and pound it with a hammer or the heel of a dress shoe until the glass was crunched into tiny pieces. I’d take the broken-glass-and-paper-towel package and hold it under running water, removing all traces of the EPO. Then
I’d flush it all down the toilet or throw the wet mess in the garbage and cover it with the stinkiest stuff I could find. (Ibid.: 142-3)
He stood up, went to the fridge, and took out what looked to be a normal can of Coca-Cola, but with a screw lid. Inside were some small syringes ... branded with the EPO manufacturer’s logo. (Millar, 2012: 159) the authorities should be able to perform a random dope test at any time of the year ... How do you disappear? Simple, you don’t answer your front door to anyone you don’t know and don’t answer your mobile phone to a number you don’t recognise. (Chambers, 2009: 96)
However, at this pivotal point in the narrative, information management about the activities that threaten the individual’s ‘virtual social identity’ begins to fail - as such, it marks the dramatic transition from being merely discreditable to being discredited, with all that entails in terms of public condemnation of the individual’s character and failings. Initial attempts to manage the potential for being publicly discredited typically comprise straightforward denials of wrong-doing:
For the first time I was being asked, point blank, whether I’d ever doped ... Now I was having to lie. (Millar, 2012: 202)
Issued the usual statement stating that I’d never knowingly taken a banned substance ... I ... explained ... to anyone who would listen. (Chambers, 2009: 123)
I can only assert my innocence ... I’ve never tested positive; I’ve never been caught with anything. (Armstrong in Hall, 2001)
Some of the already-mentioned neutralisations are activated and publicly deployed at this point, in an attempt to shape a ‘definition of the situation’ that threatens to escape the individual’s control:
‘I’ve always been an honest person since I grew up,’ I said. ‘My family taught me to be an honest person since I was a kid. I’ve always believed in fair play.’ (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 281)
In Armstrong’s case, he calls upon his experience of cancer, insinuating that his French critics are prejudiced against survivors of the disease, and uses American nationalist sentiment to deflect accusations of doping (particularly strong in its anti-French feelings at the time, in the context of the country’s refusal to support the 2001 invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies):
An American looks at my story ... and says ‘Hell yeah, of course he did it. He’s motivated, he’s crazy, he’s passionate.’ A French guy, he says, ‘C’est pas possible’ - it’s not possible. The stigma there around cancer is what we had probably thirty years ago. (Armstrong in Hall, 2001)
However, as doubts, questions and evidence of ‘doping’ accumulate (issuing variously from the press, sports authorities and criminal justice agencies) such denial becomes impossible to sustain. At this point, the narrators undergo the transition from being discreditable to being discredited, with the discrediting information circulating through the mass media and corresponding deviant labels being publically applied:
Hamilton faces ban after failed doping test ... found guilty of blood doping. (The Age, 2004)
David Millar’s fall from grace. (Cairns, 2005)
Marion Jones: A world-class cheat. (Rowbottom, 2007)
Jail beckons for drug cheat Marion Jones. (Knight, 2008)
Lance Armstrong Is the Dirtiest Cheater in Sports History. (Ask, 2013)
Additionally, notable public figures from the world of sport speak out and in doing so reinforce the stigmatising labels:
John Fahey (WADA President): ‘he [Armstrong] harassed and bullied many decent and honest people with litigation and public statements - even though those people were telling the truth ... I don’t see him as being anyone of character at all. I see him being ... a liar, a bully and a cheat’ (Aubrey, 2013). Michael Johnson (former Olympic and World Champion): ‘I question if Marion is really remorseful for anything other than having been caught and the consequences she now has to suffer’ (Bleacher Report, 2008).
Daley Thompson (former Olympic and World Champion): ‘my personal opinion [of Chambers] is that he’s a cheating bastard who shouldn’t be allowed to compete’ (Bryant, 2008).
In the face of such labelling, there ensues a collapse in the self-identity that the individual has heretofore publicly projected. This moment, when the stigmatising label of ‘cheat’ finds purchase, is described by the narrators as a profound and traumatic unravelling of the self:
I took the call that would turn my world upside down. (Chambers, 2009: 120)
My world came crashing down. Suddenly, I was very scared. Panic gripped me ... my life was now in tatters. (Millar, 2012: 206-7)
This redefinition of the self undermines not only the individuals’ public persona as an athlete, but equally the identity that underpins intimate relationships with friends and family. Consequently, considerable emphasis is placed in the narratives upon the trauma involved in facing loved ones and ‘owning up’ to the discrediting facts that have become publicly known:
there was something I had to do . .. something I’d been dreading: tell my mom the truth. I’d told my dad earlier ... he tried to keep his chin up in the best Hamilton family tradition, but I could see the pain on his face; I felt like I’d stabbed him in the gut. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 314-15)
Leonie [his girlfriend] listened as I explained everything and then told her I would understand if she never wanted to see me again. I was bad news, I said, and about to go through my own personal hell ... I worried about returning home, facing friends and family. (Chambers, 2009: 123)
Despite ultimately confessing, expressing remorse and regret, and seeking forgiveness, the exposure stage is nevertheless replete with neutralisation strategies that seek to deflect the stigma arising from being publicly labelled a ‘cheat’. Some of these recuperate themes already elucidated from the ‘initiation’ and ‘commitment’ stages of the narrative - denial of harm, denial of responsibility and appeals to necessity and to higher loyalties. However, we also see a concerted recourse to ‘condemnation of the condemners’:
The delinquent shifts the focus of attention from his own deviant acts to the motives and behaviour of those who disapprove of his violations. His con- demners, he may claim, are hypocrites, deviants in disguise, or impelled by personal spite ... by attacking others, the wrongfulness of his own behaviour is more easily lost to view. (Sykes and Matza, 1957: 668)
The first targets for condemnation are the popular press and mass media which have been instrumental in both exposing the wrong-doing and conferring the label of ‘cheat’. Despite admitting to the factual accuracy of the press’ claims, the narrators nevertheless simultaneously seek to blunt those claims through condemnation:
The press were like a pack of hungry hyenas determined to get their teeth into me ... they’ll turn on you like pack of hungry wolves ... they were a disgrace to their profession. (Chambers, 2009: 123, 139, 185)
I had my first ever encounter with the trolls - the journalists who pull you into the muck of doping scandals. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 221)
Particular opprobrium is reserved for sporting authorities and others associated with ‘the establishment’. The narrator minimises his own agency (and hence guilt) by accusing those in positions of power of hypocrisy, neglect of responsibilities, and scapegoating in order to cover their own failings and complicity with questionable behaviour:
Contempt for the system and resentment of its inadequacies were often the first steps towards doping ... it became increasingly difficult, and then impossible, to respect those charged with prevention, detection and punishment ... It was the hypocrisy that was the hardest thing to live with. (Millar, 2012: 278)
And here, I felt, were the same authorities who had neglected to inform and educate a young athlete only too happy to inform the press of his guilt. From that day on I was the bad bastard, Chambers the cheat. (Chambers, 2009: 124)
Some of my fiercest critics are far from perfect themselves. (Ibid.: 129)
The world governing bodies’ lack of involvement in educating young athletes against drugs is nothing short of criminal. (Ibid.: 207)
Even in the midst of confession and contrition, the impulse to ‘accuse the accusers’ comes to the fore as a device for ‘fighting back’ against labelling:
The USADA report is complete bullshit ... It worked perfectly to destroy one man’s life but it has not benefitted cycling. (Armstrong in Mandard, 2013)
Teams and employers are also condemned for their irresponsibility, dishonesty and exploitation of the athletes:
I relied heavily on other people guiding me and had been let down by the people around me, particularly my team ... the team management had their heads firmly buried in the sand. (Millar, 2012: 209. 25)
We were only the foot soldiers in this messed-up arms race [ ... we ... ] simply did what the team doctors told us to do. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 100, 107)
Such accusation may culminate in a rhetorical reversal of roles, with the ‘offender’ being re-cast as the victim, appealing for understanding in light of his ‘persecution’:
I felt like I was being victimized - by the sport, by the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale], by the testers, by some of the peloton ... and most of all by a world that was swift to lump me into the category of ‘cheater’, ‘doper’, and ‘liar’ without looking at the details. (Ibid.: 285)
Nearly six years on, I am still being victimised and ostracised ... The written word is all-powerful and for years it has been used to discredit and dishonour me. (Chambers, 2009: 141, 195)
‘Persecution’ is depicted as violation of the individual’s rights:
Yes ... they’ve all stood up and condemned me, put the boot into a man on the ground ... They have helped cost me ... the chance to put food on the table for my family ... I have not been allowed to get on with my life, and have been denied the basic right to feed and clothe my family. (Ibid.: 138, 219)
References to ‘feeding and clothing’ one’s children in effect appeals to deeply held shared norms about parental responsibility and the importance of family, and simultaneously reinforces the appeals to higher loyalty previously offered to explain or excuse doping.
In Marion Jones’ narrative, the depiction of suffering is especially acute as she dwells upon her experience of imprisonment following her conviction for perjury. This account occupies five chapters of her book, and focuses on the degradations and privations of prison life:
Carswell is a medium-security prison, but it has a reputation of being notoriously harrowing. Accusations of gross medical neglect, rape by prison guards, and toxic exposures have been reported by the media. (Jones, 2010: 61)
The mattress was old and soiled ... I wondered what living organisms were lurking inside it ... There was very little decent food or anything even remotely fresh served in jail ... The meat looked like dog food. I once saw a cockroach crawl out of a bread pan and skitter for cover ... every day was a struggle for survival ... relentless noise ... strip searches. (Ibid.: 66, 70-1, 77)
In a similar Vein, Millar describes the frightening experience of harsh treatment by criminal justice authorities:
They took me back to my apartment. As I unlocked the door one of them restrained me, while the other crept in, gun in hand, to clear the place before we entered. I thought it was contemptible: I was a professional cyclist, not a drug-running murderer ... ‘Move and we will take you down,’ one of them said to me, with a look that told me he meant it. I could see that he would not hesitate to use violence. (Millar, 2012: 205)
To the privations and humiliations described by Jones is added the pain of separation from her two young children, thereby calling upon socially sanctioned values around motherhood and the gendered conventions around the caring role:
I sent birthday presents, including recordings of me, reading some of Monty and Amir’s favourite children’s stories and a DVD of me, singling
‘Happy Birthday’ ... I had to do four or five takes before I could sing the song without breaking down in tears. (Ibid.: 54-5)
Another time, Monty cried on the phone because he missed me a lot. I tried to be tough and hold back the tears, but I soon began to cry as well ... I was heartbroken. Once ... my mother-in-law ... told me that Amir took what she thought was his first step. I was devastated to miss it. (Ibid.: 73)
Throughout Jones’ detailed account of her prison experience, these ‘pains of imprisonment’ (Sykes, 1958) take central place, reinforcing the sense that she has been made to suffer by the system for her ‘one mistake’.
In the narratives of Chambers and Jones, the claims of victimisation also take on racialised and/or class-based dimensions. These have a prima facie public credibility, given what is known about racial discrimination in sport. Indeed, it has been shown that the ideological institutionalisation of sport in society has its history in imperialist projects that draw centrally upon notions of racial superiority and inferiority (Guttmann, 1986). Recent studies of black athletes’ experiences suggest that patterns of racialised exclusion continue to configure the culture of professional sports (Ismond, 2003). In the case of Jones’ book, the dynamics of racism is first implicit yet clearly adduced in the account of her interview with Special Agent Jeff Novitsky (the lead investigator in the infamous BALCO case). While admitting that she lied under oath to Novitsky about doping, she nevertheless recasts herself in the implicit role of vulnerable black women at the mercy of a powerful white man:
Novitsky looked like infantry soldiers prepared to do battle. Novitsky was ... six-foot, six-inch ... with a glistening white bald head. He had ... a reputation for badgering witnesses ... I began to feel provocation and hostility ... Novitsky stared at me, contemptuous and unblinking ... Novitsky abruptly stood up and angrily shook the baggie at me ... comparable to a pit bull that has been taunted. (Jones 2010: 10-12)
The theme of racism is more explicitly evoked in her later recollections of imprisonment:
What goes on behind the walls of the prison is a mirror in many ways of what happens in society, and that includes prejudice and bigotry ... The racial incidents were primarily Hispanics going after Blacks. (Ibid.: 80)
She kept lunging at me. I fell down hard on the floor. This woman was going to render me unconscious or she was going to kill me. There was no one to help me. She wouldn’t stop, and after a while it felt like my life was in danger ... My assailant was Penny, thirty-four, one of my roommates ... from Plano, Texas, an affluent suburb of Dallas. (Ibid.: 109-10)
In Chambers’ book, the claim of racial discrimination in sport and British society is explicitly articulated - indeed, the title of the book (Race against Me) carries a double meaning, implying that he has been singled out for persecution on these grounds. He concludes:
But there is something more sinister that no one knows about until now. Only in the last year or so have I become fully aware of just how many people want Dwain Chambers to fail, want the poor black boy to fade away into obscurity. (Chambers, 2009: 219-20)
Whatever the truth of such claims (Mean, 2013), they acquire significance in respect of the present analysis since they serve as powerful rhetorical devices that redirect attention away from the narrators’ own transgressions - they are, to borrow from King Lear, ‘more sinnd against than sinning’. As Sykes and Matza (1957: 668) incisively put it:
The validity of this jaundiced viewpoint is not so important as its function in turning back or deflecting the negative sanctions attached to violations of the norms. The delinquent has, in effect, changed the subject of the conversation in the dialogue between his own deviant impulses and the reactions of others; and by attacking others, the wrongfulness of his own behaviour is more easily repressed or lost to view.
For our narrators, amidst the flow of discrediting information and stigmatising judgements, the re-direction of discussion towards the alleged failings of others (the ‘hyenas’, ‘wolves’, ‘trolls’ and ‘hypocrites’) serves a multiple rhetorical purposes. First, it simply changes the focus of public scrutiny away from their own misconduct. Second, it recuperates and reinforces the apportioning of responsibility for that misconduct to others, typically those in positions of power and authority. Third, it symbolically recasts the narrator as a victim of unjust treatment, summoning up sympathy for his ‘plight’.