I’ll be vulnerable and confess up front that I really, really dislike professional sports.

I won’t belabor the point, except to say that I see as plain immoral the amount of money being paid to someone for something no more meaningful than being really good a tossing a ball through a basket while people in the same city go hungry and queue up to apply for minimum wage jobs.

Or the amount of money being paid to someone for riding a bicycle really well.

It was pretty hard to miss the drama around Lance Armstrong’s fall from public grace last week. In the end it was precipitous and sweeping. Stripped of past trophies, all but forced to resign from a cancer charity that he started, loss of title. Even the very real possibility that he’ll have to pay back actual cash earned through winnings and endorsements. Not to mention an internet full of emotive angst and moral outrage among faithful fans who expected better of him.

I find very curious the lengths to which particularly American audiences will go to insist on “purity” in professional sports. If find it curious that this supposed purity matters in the context of an industry so full of insider backstabbing, egoism, scandal, abuses of all kinds and just plain drama. But that notion of purity is important.

We allow our impression of an athlete or a sport or a team to be tainted by irrelevant things, while at the same time constructing for ourselves illogical narratives which reinforce the messaging coming out of sports industry PR machines. We believe in this notion of purity in professional sport in the face of repeated evidence to the contrary quite simply because we want it to be true. We need to cling to the belief professional baseball or hockey remains pure – that athletes really do what they do without performance enhancing substances.

For rock ‘n’ roll stars, drug use is de rigueur. Maybe if Lance had been a guitarist instead of a cyclist…

he should have just been a rock star

I think there’s a wake up call in here for humanitarian NGOs. We need to see this as a wake-up call about what happens when public perception goes up in flames

There is no point in denying that there are competing narratives about what is “real” in the world of international relief and development and philanthropy. Without banging on about which parts of which narratives I personally think are really real, I’ll simply say that we will someday come to the point beyond which it will be no longer possible to separate those competing narratives. There will come a time when our constituents will collectively demand an explanation for why we said one thing and did something else. And if we’re to really learn the lesson of Lance Armstrong, we need to understand that it will be very public and very much into the weeds of detail. We’ve seen what happens when someone the public thought was “pure” turns out not to be.

And in the end it will not matter whether so-called “purity” makes any sense in the real world or not. In the end we’ll be stripped of our awards and our credentials, forced to pay back donors, not because we didn’t do good work, not because we can’t show impact. Remember, Lance won a lot of races; the drugs very clearly worked for him. No, this will all happen because we allowed and in some cases enabled people to create a narrative about who we are and what we do that does not align with reality.

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  1. I think to a great degree this is already happening. to some people the mention of the UN, for example, just brings up images of rape in Congo or the food for oil scandal. the difference here -me thinks- is that while in sports the glory and the disgrace are very much attached to the person, in aid the person seems to always get away with it. charges to high level staff for harrasment go unpunished, not to mention that countries refuse to prosecute their national staff that has been charged with rape or human trafficking (wtf?) while it is the institutions that suffer and get the slack, institutions for the most part filled with people that are trying to do good.

    • Hmmmm… interesting. The relationship between the whole (institutions, NGOs…) and the parts that comprise it (individual aid workers) is not always consistent…

  2. Didn’t the aid world have this moment, to some extent, with Mortenson? The halo effect is quite powerful and I worry that some may take the lesson to say that celebrity still makes a huge difference, just make sure that your celebrity is as ‘pure’ as s/he says.

  3. while we certainly were lambasted after the great Greg Mortenson fell from grace, it wasn’t quite the same… as far as i know, the aid community didn’t rally behind him. we didn’t give him awards, hoist him up on our shoulders either as the ultimate inspiration or gold standard.

    The layperson did that (with the assistance of Nick Kristof and other Mortenson champions), despite protests from our entire community of professional “do-gooders”.

    and so… it feels like we lost out twice; first, when compared to the inspirational and efficacious Central Asian Institute despite all protestations (the acronym alone demonstrates how little forethought there was) and second, when everyone realized that Greg Mortenson’s CIA was a crock and decided to belittle other organizations simply because outsiders perceived an association.

  1. Purity | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator
  2. We Don’t Need Another Hero | AidSpeak
  3. Take Care | AidSpeak
  4. Game-Changer | AidSpeak

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