|For Lance Armstrong, redemption starts with talking to Oprah. (OWN photo)|
I am so tired of the redemption story.
I’m tired of it because it is a cliché. I’m tired of it because it turns suckers into an awful lot of people. I’m tired of it because it lets way too many people off the hook.
Before you think I’m terribly hard-hearted and cynical, understand that I don’t think redemption is bad. It’s necessary and it’s inspiring, particularly when it truly galvanizes someone’s humanity instead of, say, landing them endorsement deals and a fat contract.
The redemption story, though, is another … well … story. You know how it goes: Athlete/actor/public figure/business person pretty much destroys their life and maybe someone else’s. Then they clean up their life and the world embraces them. Big pay day ensues. Happy ever after. The end.
That’s why I’m so uncomfortable with the Lance Armstrong story these days. Quite frankly, I would have held him in higher regard if he had just kept up with the denials and accusations. But to go on “Oprah” and admit you’re a flawed human being? What a cliché.
This ennui with the redemption story isn’t just about Lance Armstrong, though. For me, it’s the way it’s become just too easy with a fawning public and a culpable media to tell that same old story. Those with a comeback story are placed upon a pantheon that seems hard to reach for those who never screwed up to begin with. Solid, dependable, trustworthy success is just too boring for our culture, and that is truly sad.
In a long journalism career, I’ve done one comeback story that I can recall. And it’s why I’ll never do another one. A former star athlete blew away (literally) his career; this was the 1980s and cocaine was everywhere. Now he was cleaned up and working at a local business and talking to kids about how he’d screwed up his life.
It was only later, when I was older and more cynical, that I realized how perfect that PR was for the business he had now chosen and felt a little squeamish about that. I also got an anonymous call from a very angry woman who had been the victim of some bad stuff this guy had done. She didn’t think it had to be in the story, she just wanted me to know who it was we were trying to make look so good.
I felt bad for her, but it was only later when I actually became the victim of a crime that I realized what these redemption stories must be like to people on the other side of the story. I vowed never to do one again, and so far, I haven’t. Not one like this.
Yet they’re there, everywhere. As the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis is celebrated in these, his final days as a pro, few mention a situation he was involved in years ago in which a two young men were murdered. The men's families remember, though.
The redemption story is but one of many clichés the willing media and the naive public lap up. The problem is, people recognize they need an angle and try to sell themselves in such a way.
I recently got a story pitch from a new business owner wanting me to do a story on his business. I said we’d print some information that the new business opened, but wouldn’t do a full story. “What about a story about a black man opening a business?” was the response. “Did you really have to go there?” I wanted to say.
I also got a story pitch from a PR person wanting me to write article about her CEO client, a woman. The story pitch? About the challenges of a woman working in a man’s world. I wanted to tell the PR person that as a former sports writer, I could probably teach her client a thing or two about working in a man’s world. I also wanted to ask her who set the time machine back to 1973.
It all reminds me of the great line from “Muriel’s Wedding,” when Muriel follows the cluster of young women on their vacation until they get fed up with her.
“You’ve got no dignity, Muriel,” one of them cruelly says as she walks away.
Dignity. It’s a lost art. Maybe finding a little bit of it is all the redemption we need.