Athletes as Frauds: The Fall From Grace

By Don Wade

A cycling wreck leaves scars, layers of flesh skinned by rough pavement, a broken bone or two, maybe a concussion.

So maybe that explains why Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace seems so much farther – and the landing so much harder – than the decline and fall of the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez.

Or maybe the answer lies in this truth: We, the American sporting public, never loved A-Rod. We marveled at his hitting prowess, before we knew for sure that it was artificially enhanced, and we even debated if he would break the bogus Barry Bonds home run record.

But we never, ever, loved him.

Lance, we loved. Lance, we wanted to give the benefit of every doubt. He won the Tour de France seven times. He beat cancer. We all wore the celebratory Livestrong wristbands, which, by the way, raised about $80 million in Livestrong Foundation proceeds. That’s also less than three years of salary for A-Rod, who makes $30 million a year and is finishing this postseason playing behind the immortal Eric Chavez.

Yet going forward and forever, history will be much tougher on Armstrong than on Alex Rodriguez. Put it this way: How disappointed, angry, resentful and foolish would we feel if we suddenly found out that Derek Jeter was a steroid cheat?

Jeter is so beloved that even people that hate the Yankees and despise A-Rod leave room for the Jeter exception. To not appreciate Jeter is to somehow thumb your nose at the flag and turn down your mother’s apple pie.

So, no, the rest of the Lance Armstrong story is not going to be pretty. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency summarized Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs in two words: “Serial cheating.”

Armstrong was banned from cycling. He has stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong Foundation. Nike has cut all contractual ties.

A-Rod is still welcome in baseball, perhaps particularly so by opposing pitchers; through the first three games of the ALCS he was 3-for-23 (.130) this postseason with 12 strikeouts. Where Armstrong is morphing into a full-fledged villain, A-Rod is just becoming an easy Saturday Night Live skit.

The New York Post reported that after A-Rod was pinch-hit for in Game 1 of the ALCS he wrote a note on a baseball and had it delivered to a woman in the stands at Yankee Stadium who turned out to be an Australian bikini model. Is it true? A-Rod called it fertilizer, which doesn’t tell us much.

Really, it almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not because it feels so in character with our perception of him: spoiled, arrogant, selfish, a fraud at every turn.

A-Rod is 37 and has had two straight mediocre seasons. There is no more magic left, though unfortunately for the Yankees there are five more years and $114 million worth of contract left.

Those of us who aren’t Yankees fans laugh and say it serves the Evil Empire right.

But most of us don’t even know the name of Lance Armstrong’s cycling team; nor do we care. We don’t know the names of teammates who have testified against him. Truthfully, most of us don’t even know the first thing about the big bike race except that Armstrong once dominated it.

Armstrong has fallen from his golden saddle and may even have to return much of the money he won from his cycling victories. The undoing of his reputation, of his life, has only just begun. Not much of a wristband to be made from that.

Meantime, A-Rod still rakes in his millions, smiles and mouths “Hi Mom” in the dugout for the cameras, and pursues Australian bikini models even as he’s killed in the New York tabloids. Anyone who knows baseball knows there are worse trades than that.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the Jon & Don Show on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays.