Home Sociology Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma
Abstract: This chapter explores the ‘resolution’ stage of disgraced athletes’ self-narratives, in which they attempt to transcend the stigma of being labelled as a cheat, liar, doper and criminal. This resolution draws upon a ‘denial of the deviant self’ in which the narrators seek to demonstrate that they are now fundamentally changed and reformed, and so have put their past misdemeanours behind them. Representations of self-renewal and transformation into a ‘better person’ serve to separate the narrators from an identity that has been contaminated by stigma, and in doing so attempt to decisively draw a line under scandal and disgrace.
Yar, Majid. Crime, Deviance and Doping: Fallen Sports Stars, Autobiography and the Management of Stigma. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. doi: 10.1057/9781137403759.0010.
In Chapter 6 we explored how self-narratives address the pivotal moment at which the athletes undergo public exposure for use of PEDs, and the consequent acquisition of a range of deviant labels (‘liar, ‘cheat, ‘fraud, ‘criminal’). The ‘pro-social identity’ (Maruna, 2001) previously constructed and projected has been decisively ‘spoiled, and the person suffers public disapproval and vilification, alongside a variety of social sanctions stemming from ‘becoming deviant’ (Matza, 1969) (such as loss of employment and income, being banned from participation in professional sport, and being the subject of civil and criminal charges). Beyond these tangible and material losses, the individuals suffer the acute social shame that accompanies stigmatisation. As noted in Chapter 2, some of the stigma-management techniques available to others are denied to our narrators, given their high level of public visibility; for example, flight from the social milieu in which the discrediting information is known proves difficult, given that knowledge of their misdemeanours will likely precede them wherever they go. Instead, they are more likely to make recourse to a staged ‘para confession’ in which they address directly the facts underpinning their dramatic loss of status. This exercise takes place through press releases, press conferences, and newspaper and television interviews - and, of course, through the kinds of extended autobiographical narratives which provide the focus for this study. In these accounts, the individuals seek to circumscribe or limit their culpability by displacing responsibility upon other people and outside forces, and by recasting themselves as variously victims of circumstance, as subjects of manipulation, as mistaken or misguided but not immoral, and as sufferers of overly harsh and undeserved punishment. Beyond the deployment of familiar neutralisations, the individuals are faced with the challenge of repairing their damaged identities, and attempting to escape their stigma. In this final chapter, we explore the narrative strategies that are mobilised so as to re-present the self ‘beyond stigma,
In all the accounts examined here, the final narrative stage comprises an attempt not simply to deflect, evade or minimise stigma, but to transcend it. The ‘resolution’ stage centres upon the narrator’s attempts to disavow his past self, and reconstruct himself as a ‘new’ individual, one that has been cleansed of those undesirable character traits implicated in transgression. Studies of desistance narratives have identified the significance of envisioning a new future self, centred on a ‘coherent prosocial identity’ (Maruna, 2001: 7). In these accounts we see retrospective assurances that such a reconstruction of the self has in fact taken place, thereby persuading others to believe that they are ‘not like that anymore’ (Ibid.). If we were to use the language of neutralisation theory, we might wish to identify this as an additional technique - the ‘denial of the deviant self’. If the earlier narrative stages follow the arc of ‘rise and fall’, then this final stage is configured as ‘rising again, a process of radical transformation and renewal - the final stage of the ‘hero’s journey’ that ends with atonement and apotheosis.
If the resolution stage entails the narrative construction of a new, redeemed self, then it must begin with the destruction or dissolution of the established self which has become irretrievably contaminated by the labels of ‘cheat’, ‘liar’, ‘criminal’ and so on. The spoiled identity must be disowned so as to create narrative space for its replacement with a self that is better, more balanced, humble, honest and trustworthy. This can be understood as an essential part of the adaptation strategy that Rogers and Buffalo (1974: 114) call ‘alteration’ - ‘The deviant exchanges his/her former behaviour for that socially demanded’, and in doing so seeks to assure others that he is indeed a ‘changed man’. Therefore, it is unsurprising that our accounts dwell on the aftermath of ‘exposure’ and ‘disgrace’ in terms of the unravelling of the self; remorse, self-recrimination and shame figure centrally as devices that distance the narrator from the individual responsible for past misdeeds:
Everything felt wrong, as if all the shit that I protected myself with had been stripped away. I was 27 and I’d thrown my life away. I felt empty ... It was shameful being known as a doper, a cheat ... but there was no hiding from who I was and what I’d done. (Millar, 2012: 209-10)
I was so angry with myself for making my life so difficult. What an idiot I’d been. What a spoiled brat. What a bloody fool. (Ibid.: 231)
My soul was broken and I felt numb. I felt as though I no longer had purpose in life. (Chambers, 2009: 224)
I thought of the shame that I’d brought upon my family, the sport of track and field, my former teammates, and my many supporters ... I was wracked by humiliation and then by free-floating remorse. (Jones, 2010:
We should note here the use of an intense language of existential abjection - ‘shame’, ‘humiliation’, ‘remorse’, ‘broken’, ‘empty’ and so on. Use of such adjectives communicates the depth and extent to which the self has been mortified, and as a consequence in some profound sense undone. Yet this experience is not simply suffered, but embraced as a strategy of separating the emergent self from its compromised past incarnation, paving the way for renewal:
I’d destroyed as much of the old me as I could. Now it was time to become that new person. (Millar, 2012: 238)
We wandered around, and pulled a few pieces out of the rubble, including one small stump. It looked ruined. But underneath, when I carried it away, I saw the fire had made the wood harder, better ... I’m like that piece of wood: charred and damaged, but also stronger, shaping myself into some new purpose. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 377)
Deployment of the denial of responsibility and harm notwithstanding, at this stage confession figures centrally as part of the ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of discursive laundering of the ‘dirty’ self. The recourse to confession can be situated within the wider social and cultural dynamics of modern society. As Foucault (1979) argues, confession emerges as a ‘technology’ for the production of truth and the simultaneous social production of the ‘normalised’ self - in confessing ‘who we are, we define ourselves for others and place ourselves in relation to society’s dominant norms and codes. In the context of celebrity culture and mass-mediated representation, such confessional acts become a form of staged performance in which people are expected to disclose their ‘trauma’ to the wider public audience (Seltzer, 1997). Confessional acts play a pivotal role in how our narrators signal their repudiation of past transgressions and the possibility of renewal:
After 47 hours in police custody, I admitted everything ... when I left, the relief of having told them everything putting me in a state of euphoria. I was grateful to them for liberating me from the torment ... Each statement, printed and signed, was another weight off my shoulders, another little exorcism. (Millar, 2012: 207, 217)
Telling the truth after thirteen years didn’t feel good - in fact, it hurt ... but even in that pain, I could sense that this was a step forward ... because now I felt clean, I felt new. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 307)
Deep down, I knew that my confession was the beginning of the healing process for me. (Jones, 2010: 6)
I was free of the secret I’d carried with me for so long. Any day now the news would be out there and I was almost looking forward to it. (Chambers, 2009: 122)
The ‘fall from grace, insofar as it enables renewal and reinvention of the self, is identified as an unexpected good, and may be framed in explicitly religious terms:
I’m a big believer in fate and the powers of God ... Despite what was about to happen to Dwain Chambers, the good lord was still looking after me. (Ibid.: 122)
The world works in strange ways. I know that old saying that when God closes a door He opens a window. I think that saying is really about the resilience of truth. I’ve come to learn that truth is a living thing. It has a force inside ... the truth can’t be denied or locked away. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 340)
The role attributed to religious faith in the renewal of the self is most explicitly addressed by Jones, whose account features extensive discussion of the significance of God for her ‘journey’ back from disgrace. As Maruna et al. (2006: 161) argue in their exploration of inmates’ ‘prison conversions’:
the conversion narrative ‘works’ as a shame management and coping strategy ... The narrative creates a new social identity to replace the label of prisoner or criminal, imbues the experience of imprisonment with purpose and meaning, empowers the largely powerless prisoner by turning him into an agent of God, provides the prisoner with a language and framework for forgiveness, and allows a sense of control over an unknown future.
These various narrative functions are apparent in Jones’ explications of her ‘newly-discovered’ faith in the wake of her experiences:
Now, looking back, maybe I needed what happened to me ... Maybe I needed the pain, the hurt, the humiliation. The purpose of it all was to make me honest, really honest ... and most importantly, honest and true to myself and to God. I needed to learn that, in life, we must be truthful and do what’s right. (Jones, 2010: 23)
we need to respond to our trials forthrightly and look them square in the face, with reliance on God. (Ibid.: 45)
Crucially, during her incarceration, faith is mobilised to furnish her fall from grace with a special purpose:
There was a church service every Saturday night . .. This got me thinking about starting a Bible study. I knew God had put me here for a reason. Could that be it? Could I be a messenger? (Ibid.: 68)
She goes on to draw an analogy between herself and Mary Magdalene:
She was a woman with a past, a woman with bondage in her life. I knew if Jesus could deliver Mary Magdalene who had seven demons, He could deliver me from my past. I may have gone through some terrible things in my past, but I knew that the Lord was willing to forgive me, reveal himself to me, and to give me another chance. (Ibid.: 70)
For Jones, appeals to faith add a literally divine endorsement of her renewal, the salvation from past misdeeds, and most importantly forgiveness for those transgressions - if ‘the Lord himself’ has looked beyond her ‘sins’ and accepted her, then by implication her audience can and should do the same. For readers of a more sceptical turn of mind, these rather grandiose evocations of faith, ones that place Jones centre-stage in God’s purpose and plans, may be viewed as transparently self-serving, or even deluded. However, we need to bear in mind the primary audience to which Jones addresses her self-narrative. Social research consistently indicates that religiosity figures much more centrally in American culture than it does in other Western advanced industrial nations. For example, 73 per cent of Americans declared themselves to be Christians in 2012 (spanning evangelical, mainstream Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Mormon - Pew Research, 2012); ‘born again, Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians remain a powerful social and cultural force. In this context, Jones’ appeal to religion as the cornerstone of her renewal of self is a powerful narrative strategy intended to resonate with many potential readers.
The final element in the athletes’ resolution narrative comprises a demonstration of the conventional commitments and behaviours that configure this new self - concrete ‘evidence’ of the individual’s tangible reinvention as a ‘model citizen’. It is noteworthy that four of the five narrators stress, in the first instance, their driving commitment to promoting ‘clean’ sport and for publicly campaigning against ‘doping’:
I will continue to spread the word to the youth of the country that drugs in sport is bad news and that there is a better way to achieve success ... I will continue . .. visiting schools, prisons, youth centres and town halls to take my message forward. (Chambers, 2009: 227-8)
Millar, in particular, has reinvented himself as an activist who works alongside sporting authorities:
I was coming out as an anti-doping activist ... Mine was a rare path, but one that fortuitously led to my total reform and a new-found passion in educating people on what, up to that point, had always been a hidden dark world. (Millar, 2012: 281-2)
My standing as a reformed athlete was growing and UK Sport had put me forward as the British nomination for the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Athlete Committee ... I was elected ... I was now officially part of WADA, the global agency promoting anti-doping. (Ibid.: 300)
After her release from prison, Jones set up her ‘Take a Break’ programme, aimed at addressing young people and intended to ‘coach all people to live a better life and avoid mistakes that cause too big a price’ (marionjones.org, 2013):
Hundreds of students filed into the high school auditorium for my ... talk. The presentation ... is my attempt to encourage kids to learn from my mistake of lying and to ‘take a break’, think, and get proper advice from those people in your life whom you trust before making impulsive decisions - about drugs, about relationships. (Jones, 2010: 167)
Even in the context of his first confessional interview, Armstrong alludes to his newly found ‘anti-doping’ orientation:
If there was a truth and reconciliation commission [for cyclists to tell all they know about doping] ... if they have it and I’m invited I’ll be first man through the door. (in Mahon, 2013)
Given the very recent nature of his public stigmatisation, Armstrong’s self-narrative of renewal undoubtedly has some way to run - however, we may reasonably expect that the kinds of ‘anti-doping’ stance exhibited by others will likewise come to feature in his ‘post-fall’ self-presentation.
Avowals of a new-found commitment to promoting ‘clean’ sport and honest conduct are further bolstered by references to a range of ‘other- regarding’ endeavours, especially charitable and campaigning work (sometimes framed in self-aggrandising terms). These, of course, connect with earlier constructions of celebrity athletes who are presented as exemplars of virtuous and socially responsible behaviour. Now, these commitments are reactivated, and linked to the ‘journey’ that has led them to greater self-awareness and humility:
I am polishing my arguments for prison reform ... It seems a daunting task to improve prison conditions, but we can’t just turn our backs and walk away ... These things - the things I now stand for - give me positive energy. They give me passion. They give me a reason to live. (Jones, 2010: 209, 211-12)
I will continue to support worthwhile charities ... Now that I have clear mind a purer heart I will continue my dream of inspiring others, and along my journey I hope to leave many positive breadcrumbs on the table so the masses will benefit. (Chambers, 2009: 228-9)
Now I spend my time training people, helping them on the journey, seeing their hard work pay off ... Along the way, I try to tell them a bit of my story, try to tell them what I’ve learned ... I feel like I’m returning to my early days on the bike, to the person I used to be. (Hamilton and Coyle, 2012: 347)
The culmination of the reform narrative is represented through the declaration of a self at peace, happy and reconciled with a past that has been decisively set aside:
As the weeks passed, I realized that I was experiencing a strange feeling. I felt strangely light, almost giddy. I’d find myself chatting with people I ran into, or just standing stock-still on the sidewalk ... enjoying the feeling of the sun on my skin. That’s when I realized what the unfamiliar feeling was: I was happy. Genuinely, deeply happy. (Ibid.: 330)
I am altogether a more peaceful man. (Chambers, 2009: 223)
I feel happier and more fulfilled than I was during my record-breaking days. (Jones, 2010: 212)
I stood ... forehead pressed against the window ... quietly crying, a last wave washing over me, feeling something I thought I’d never know. Redemption. (Millar, 2012: 246)
The proclamation of a self that is happy, fulfilled, at peace and ultimately redeemed serves to bring narrative closure - just as the narrators have conclusively transcended their troubled pasts, so the audience is invited to likewise set aside antagonism and adverse judgement, consigning the stigma of spoiled identity to posterity.
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