Athletes Behaving Badly: Does the Bad Diminish the Good?

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of examples in the news of athletes or coaches doing some pretty horrible things, such as cheating to win the Tour De France and  allegedly murdering their significant others.  Recently, I had a discussion with a friend about these incidents, in which she asked me: How should we view these people in light of the crimes they have committed?  Are their accomplishments on the field diminished by what they’ve done off it?  The following post details my answer to this question.

For cases like these, I like to apply what I call “The Clinton Test.”  I take the name of this from the example of Bill Clinton, our 42nd President who is probably most remembered for a certain extramarital BJ he got in the Oval Office from intern Monica Lewinsky.  When I apply the Clinton Test, I ask the following question: Do the crimes that these people committed have a direct impact on their ability to do their jobs, or their job performance?  For most public figures, I believe we can and should separate their personal lives from their public lives.  In my mind, just because a person may not be especially virtuous or respectable, doesn’t mean they aren’t good at what they do.  The world is littered with examples of arrogant jerks who are nevertheless good at their jobs (I’m sure many of you have worked with one or more of them).  For the Clinton example, I would say that he, in my opinion, was an excellent President, presiding over the most prosperous economy in American history, and helping the US government achieve a budget surplus by the end of his term, among other things.  The man was good at his job.  He may have been a terrible husband, but that didn’t have any direct impact on his job performance.

Lance Armstrong

Let’s apply the Clinton Test to some of the most controversial stories in sports today.  First, Lance Armstrong.  The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) convicted Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs during his seven consecutive Tour de France wins from 1999-2005.  USADA banned him from competitive cycling for life, and stripped him of his Tour de France titles.  It is fairly obvious that Armstrong fails the Clinton Test.  His use of performance-enhancing drugs directly impacted his job performance.  Without these drugs, it is likely (though not a foregone conclusion) that he would not have won these races.  His on-field accomplishments cannot be considered legitimate in any way.  Armstrong didn’t just dope, either.  He lied over and over again to the public, insisting he was not using these drugs, and brought legal action against those who threatened to expose him.  If not for his Livestrong foundation, which has done much to aid cancer research, his reputation might be even worse than it already is.

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius competes during round 1 of the men's 400m heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium
Oscar Pistorius

Next, we’ll look at Oscar Pistorius.  With the aid of carbon fiber prosthetic blades, Pistorius became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, running for South Africa.  On Valentine’s Day 2013, Pistorius was charged with premeditated murder after his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot and killed in the bathroom of Pistorius’s home.  If Pistorius is convicted (as seems likely), does this diminish his accomplishments on the field?  Applying the Clinton Test, I would say no.  Murder is a despicable and inexcusable crime, and if he is convicted, he should be locked up for the rest of his life.  His crime will be what everyone remembers him first for, deservedly so.  However, his achievements should still be remembered and acknowledged because, misdeed or not, he still made track and field history.

Pete Rose
Pete Rose

Using the Clinton Test, we can even attempt to settle debates about players’ eligibility for Halls of Fame.  For example, Pete Rose has the most career hits of any player in Major League Baseball history.  After he retired, it was discovered that he had bet on baseball games while playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds.  In 2004, he admitted that he had bet on various baseball games, some of which involved his own team.  He also acknowledged that he did bet on the Reds to win, but never to lose.  If this is the case, I would argue that Rose should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.  His betting on baseball games, while perhaps unethical and against MLB policy (thus making him deserving of his lifetime ban), did not affect his job performance.  There is no evidence that Rose intentionally threw games (as the 1919 “Black Sox” did) to try to win bets.  As far as we know, all the statistics Rose put up are legitimate, and they should thus be separated from his off-field conduct and honored with his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.


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