“It was a punch in the gut for those of us who know him.” These words could have been spoken about Lance Armstrong. Or about the CEO of Lockheed Martin who was dismissed by the Board for an inappropriate relationship with an employee. Or the person next to you on the train to work, or in the aisle across from you in church or maybe even the person we see in the mirror. As it happens, these words are the reaction of West Point professor, Col. Michael J. Meese upon hearing of General Petraeus’ admission of an affair.
Some of us have that same punch-in-the-gut feeling about Lance Armstrong – cancer survivor, iconic Tour de France winner, and major philanthropist who served as a beacon of light and hope for millions. The life and legend of Lance Armstrong continues to unravel, the most recent humiliation coming from the board of Tufts University who rescinded the honorary doctorate they awarded Armstrong in 2006.
How are we to react when the mighty fall? And what does it mean for our view of their sponsorships and charities? We who admire these larger-than-life figures from afar have feelings of disbelief, disappointment, and even disgust.
In the case of Armstrong, the rumors of his doping swirled for years, though proof was never found. But this fall, the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) published a lengthy and damning report, banning him for life from any event it presides over. Armstrong’s denials were less defiant than usual and rang hollow. The French Cycling Union has stripped Armstrong of his much-coveted and record-breaking seven Tour de France titles; corporate sponsors and advertisers dropped him with alacrity; and even the charity which bears his own name, Livestrong, eventually severed all ties to him.
If we only knew him as Lance Armstrong, cyclist, the discovery of his systematic cheating would’ve been in the news cycle for a couple days, and had little impact on those outside the cycling community. Yet we also know Lance Armstrong, as a cancer survivor, role model, and philanthropist. Indeed, many of us were drawn to Armstrong, and watched his Tour de France victories, precisely because of his incredible story of survival, and the Livestrong campaign, with the ubiquitous yellow wristbands. It is hard to hate someone who has also accomplished so much good. And yet, he has cheated on one of the grandest of sports stages and over many years. Can we still be a fan? Can we still be a supporter? So which Lance (if any) do we embrace? Which Lance (if any) do we erase?
Despite the unveiling of his ethical failures, many people still want to follow and support Lance the cyclist or Lance the philanthropist, but are troubled by learning about Lance the cheater. Notably, contribution levels to Livestrong have not been negatively impacted by the scandal.
Recently, some academics who specialize in product branding, have studied how fans and consumers respond to celebrities and other public figures who are discovered to have a “dark side,” secretly living a life of vice and dishonesty.
In order to stay a fan and supporter, researchers used to think that consumers would morally rationalize the celebrity’s transgressions, downplaying it in light of the good they do. Yet recently, some academics have put forward a new idea to explain how consumers can “hate the sin but love the sinner”.
The concept is called “moral decoupling,” and is different than “moral rationalization” (http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=3074). In moral decoupling, we detach morality from other things. The theory is that consumers can disassociate the moral indiscretions of a celebrity thus allowing us to still applaud our heroes and celebrities for the good they do. We acknowledge our moral outrage and do not seek to rationalize or explain away or excuse their misbehavior. Instead, we isolate it as if it has no bearing on the person’s role, thereby allowing us to still support the public figure.
Philanthropy is seldom a purely rational decision divorced of emotional attachment. If anything, our gifts are usually motivated not just by the cause, but also by our relationship to a person or an organization associated with a cause. Many would not have supported Livestrong had its founder and spokesperson not been a cycling phenom. Perhaps it was the decoupling between different areas of Armstrong’s own life that led to his own breach in the first place.
So where do we go from here? One of the inevitabilities of life is that heroes, celebrities, and even organizations often let us down. Madison Avenue’s compellingly crafted images become hard to maintain in the face of our human shortcomings.
And, of course, like many human behaviors this is not a new phenomenon, linked purely to modern media and mass marketing. Remember the biblical figure, King David? This was a man who the Bible describes as being a “man after God’s own heart” and for whose sake, God is said to have acted favorably towards his descendants for generations. And yet, even this iconic figure in Hebrew tradition had ethical and moral failings of the deepest nature; he had an affair with the wife of one of his loyal lieutenants, and orchestrated the man’s murder to hide his own misdeeds. David eventually repented of his crimes and character flaws. God forgave him and David rebuilt his life and leadership.
We may not be as fast a cyclist as Lance Armstrong, or as brilliant a general as King David or David Petraeus. And yet, as athletes and generals, scholars and students, CEOs and secretaries, parents and pastors, we share in their accomplishments and failings. Is it possible that we can reduce the moral rationalizing and moral decoupling in our own lives and behaviors? And thereby, avoid giving those around us a punch in the gut…
What do you think?