World famous Tour de France champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, now infamous for prolonged steroid use, during a December 2007 USO tour in Iraq. (Wikimedia Commons)
I have spent the last several days in a Breaking Bad fever dream, asking myself, “Who is the Walter White/Heisenberg of the sports world?” I am very aware that I couldn’t come up with a hackier First Take–style question unless I was asking what sports commissioner is most like Miley Cyrus. Yet when a piece of popular art speaks to our age of collective dread as perceptively as Breaking Bad, it is worth maxing out its usage as a lens before the next shiny pop culture bauble draws our attention.
Before I posit who I believe the Walter White of the sports world to be, I should be upfront about what I think to be his defining characteristics.
Walter White is someone:
1) Who has undeniable, outlier-level abilities.
2) Whose skills are exceeded only by his self-regard.
3) Who falls and falls down hard, in a manner best described as “squalid.”
4) Who justifies his actions under a cloak of nauseating self-righteousness.
5) Who has a legitimate beef with the twenty-first-century America that has shaped his range of choices.
Using these criteria, the mind immediately floats toward athletes the public loves to hate: the sorts of iconic figures who could credibly re-enact this scene from Scarface.
First, the obvious anabolic antiheroes spring to mind: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez: people who hit the heights and then had a great fall. But how far did they really fall? Walter White’s story is ending as badly as anyone not named Prometheus. Bonds and Clemens have boundless fortunes and even in some circles, their reputations. Barry Bonds is still beloved in San Francisco and recognized, even by the most militant anti-steroid furies, as one of the best all-round players in history. Roger Clemens beat prison and was even an honored guest in Houston this past weekend for Andy Pettitte’s last game.
A-Rod, despite his wealth, does not look like he will emerge with any kind of fan base. But Walter White could be incredibly cunning. A-Rod has shown none of the cleverness, self-righteousness, or defiance of Breaking Bad’s protagonist, his face an expressionless mask. As a pulsing, malevolent presence, A-Rod has been more Hannah Montana than Tony Montana.
Lastly, PEDs and PEDs alone are in my humble view not enough to make you a Walter White. To take them is a decision athletes make with themselves, not something they are pushing upon others. The individual steroid user, in my mind, just doesn’t cut it.
What about a real criminal, someone like O.J. Simpson? OJ is closer to our Heisenberg: two people undone by ego, with Walter White’s “accidental” display of Leaves of Grass the equivalent of O.J.’s If I Did It book. The difference, of course, is that OJ was not trying to reach some kind of distorted American Dream that night in Brentwood. There was no pot of gold, no justifications that he was doing it for family. O.J. has been left with only his infamy and claims of innocence. Say what you will about Walter White’s aria of self-delusion, he never said to Hank, “But if I was going to cook up blue-meth, here is how I’d do it.”
There can be only one Walter White of the sports world, and it has to be Lance Armstrong. Most obviously, you have “the big C” cancer, as a handy narrative starting point and fail-safe justification for the slew of poor decisions that followed. Armstrong was no run-of-the-mill steroid user either. There is considerable evidence that Armstrong was not just someone who used PEDs in a sport swimming in them. He managed a team of cyclists and, according to testimony taken under oath, he insisted they partake, bullying, manipulating or just threatening anyone who didn’t. This is pure Walter White, corrupting those closest to him whether willingly (Skylar) or unwillingly (paying for Hank’s rehab with meth money). In those good times, before the ship was sinking, both also had comical mouthpieces, with ESPN’s Rick Reilly in the role of Saul Goodman.
There is a more heartbreaking parallel as well. Both were idolized by people with physical challenges who were devastated by the truth. Even in our cynical times, Lance Armstrong truly hurt the cancer survivors who believed his years of denials, including those in my family who have worn the yellow bracelet. That is personified in Walter’s son Flynn, born with cerebral palsy, who went from revering to hating this father in the time it took to slash a knife through the air.
But the most critical parallel is that Lance Armstrong like Walter White had every reason to look at this country and find justifications for getting his piece of the American Dream by any means necessary. The hardscrabble Texas son of a single mom who worked as a cashier at Kroger’s was going to fight his way out, Old West-style, in the face of impossible odds. The chemistry teacher with a baby on the way, cancer in his body and no means to leave his family anything but hospital bills looked out at his own pitiless Western landscape and grabbed the only bootstrap available.
As much as we demonize Walter White or Lance Armstrong, their crimes are both at end a function of the far more destructive, lethal and lucrative war on drugs. From the private prison profiteers, to the firearms manufacturers, to the pharmaceutical lobbyists and USADA government agents spending millions in tax dollars investigating retired athletes, there are far more important people to focus upon than the Walter Whites and Lance Armstrongs of the world. In a sane universe, their own moral failings would matter far less than he structures that produce them. We find them compelling precisely because it is so much easier to focus on the man who knocks than on why the door itself can feel so very paper-thin.