Op-Ed: Lance Armstrong’s interview earns him a “B” for apology

by Erin O’Hara O’Connor, Milton R. Underwood Chair in Law at Vanderbilt University

Erin O'Hara O'Connor
Erin O'Hara O'Connor (Vanderbilt Law School)

Public apologies are interesting creatures. Most members of the public are complete strangers to politicians, athletes, and other celebrities, and yet collectively we have the power to confer (or not) reputation, esteem, and lucrative opportunities. When we confer such advantages, we think we understand the person, and we trust his accomplishments to stem from talent and a steadfast commitment to hard work with integrity. When the public figure is suspected of wrongdoing, total strangers can feel personally betrayed. And the personal emotional reaction makes it possible for the public figure to harness the emotional benefits of confession and apology notwithstanding the fact that apology typically works at a deeply personal level. If successful, an apology can restore at least some reputation, esteem, and future opportunity, but its potential to be used strategically makes us wary of the wrongdoing. This cynicism or suspicion likely is greater for the public figure; as a stranger his bad acts cannot be tempered or filtered through a body of information that causes us to think we “know” about his positive character. For public apology, then, the potential upside tends to be huge, but only if a high quality apology can be successfully delivered.

And so it is with Lance Armstrong. We conferred him the status of national hero and athlete role model. As a very talented and dedicated athlete who managed to survive life-threatening cancer and then lead his American team to unprecedented dominance in the field of cycling and help raise substantial sums of money to help fight cancer, Lance Armstrong was our role model for many things. But today we know that his victories resulted at least in part from sustained cheating, bullying, and lying. We’ve taken away his esteem, and, when he stepped forward to communicate publicly with Oprah Winfrey, we immediately suspect his motives. Media commentators attribute Armstrong’s actions to a desire to avoid prosecution and legal liability or as part of a back room deal to restore his eligibility to compete in the athletic world. We’re poised to reject, but we also can respond with forgiveness, of a sort.

We haven’t seen all of Armstrong’s public performance, but so far I award Lance Armstrong’s apology a grade of B. Scholars identify up to 4 basic requirements of a successful apology: (1) identification of the wrongful act; (2) an expression of remorse; (3) an offer of repair or other atonement; (4) a promise to forbear from such wrongful acts in the future. To what extent did his apology contain these features?

Identification of wrongful act(s): Armstrong’s statements were very successful on this front. He confessed to many wrongful acts, including cheating, lying and bullying. He cleanly answered all of Oprah’s questions regarding the accusations made against him. And, unlike earlier interviews where he lied when denying bad acts, in Oprah’s interview Armstrong answered with unshifting, unblinking eyes, and his facial muscles conveyed exposure and humility rather than defense and defiance. Commentators want to mock him for “confessing” what we already know, but admitting specific acts of wrongdoing is an essential step to earning forgiveness.

Offer of Repair or Atonement: Armstrong’s interview has been somewhat successful on this front, so far. He has indicated without emphasizing how much he has suffered, and he is quick to state that he deserves all the punishment, professional, economic, and social that he has received. Regarding his personal relationships, Armstrong pledges to spend his life trying to win back trust. But Armstrong could go further by pledging the remainder of his professional energies to efforts to fight cancer.

Promise to Forbear: Armstrong gets high grades here. I’m not entirely convinced that he wouldn’t dope again in order to win the most competitive cycling races, but his days of professional cycling are pretty clearly over, as is his ability to dominate the sport, with or without enhancements. But he was pretty convincing in showing that he was trying very hard to leave behind a life of lying and bullying

Expression of Remorse: This aspect of apology is critical, but yet Lance falls shortest here. He has expressed regrets and embarrassment, and his body language and facial expressions conveyed humility, but he avoids owning up to feeling shame. He wishes he could take back returning to the sport because he believes that led to full exposure of his cheating, but he never states that he wishes he could take back the cheating. He seems proud of the team’s program to use performance-enhancing drugs, and he is too quick to point out that his actions weren’t as bad as some alleged. On the other hand, he does seem to express some remorse for treating those around him so badly in his efforts to retain his own image. And although he offers some explanation for his actions, he never suggests that these reasons constitute excuse.

Should we give Armstrong a second chance? Based on his actions, and his interview so far, I’d say he shouldn’t be restored to the status of national hero, and he shouldn’t be permitted to compete professionally. We should stop wondering what he is attempting to obtain with his apology. He liability exposure is massive and his athletic career over. If we are to take his apology seriously, Armstrong should be required to pay back monies ill-gained. But perhaps he should be restored at least the label of philanthropist, and we should feel comfortable trusting him to work hard to accomplish socially valuable ends in a less competitive environment. Apology and forgiveness are deeply personal, however, even for strangers, so ultimately you will have to judge for yourself.