Sports journalism and the 'hero myth'


In a January 2013 interview, American cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he won his record-breaking seven Tour de France titles with the help of performance enhancing drugs. His confession came after years of denials.

In the days following, American sports journalists took to the airwaves and Internet to react. Several sports journalists cited conversations they had with Armstrong about PEDs over the years. They explained how their belief in him and their ensuing public support of him left them feeling duped.

This led me to wonder: How many of these sports journalists had a hand in building up Armstrong’s hero narrative in the first place?

I used to be a sports writer. I know the routines and norms. When Armstrong won his first Tour in 1999, many U.S.-based sports journalists enthusiastically peppered their coverage with adjectives like “godlike,” “an idol,” and “heroic.” It would be hard to frame Armstrong this way, then not believe it yourself, on some level. Plus, this is a normalized part of sports journalism. Though many news journalists bristle at the practice, sports journalists have framed athletes and coaches as hero figures since the Gee Whiz school of sports writing emerged in the 1920s. (See Jon Enriquez's 2002 chapter on this in American Journalism: History, principles, practices.)

I began a two-part study. First, I examined American sports journalists’ columns from October 9, 2012, when the United States Anti-Doping Agency released its report on Armstrong’s history of doping, to January 31, 2013, the month following Armstrong’s confession to Oprah, to assess how sports journalists reacted. I ended up with 54 columns from 32 sports journalists.

In these columns, I looked at how sports journalists engaged in paradigm repair. Paradigm repair is, according to Daniel A. Berkowitz in Social Meanings of News, “a process that attempts to show that, despite an isolated instance that has occurred, the professional practices incorporated into the journalistic paradigm really do work to provide an objective rendering of reality.” Examples of this would be showing how journalism practices and routines are dependable, but because of [enter variable here], they failed in this isolated circumstance. In other words, I am normally a thorough/credible/trustworthy sports journalist, but because of [enter variable here], I ended up crafting a misleading narrative in this instance.

After examining these reactionary columns, I did the second part of the study. I looked at all of the stories these same sports journalists wrote about Armstrong from January 1, 1999, the year Armstrong won his first Tour de France, to December 31, 2010, Armstrong’s final year in the Tour. This resulted in 109 articles from 22 authors. (I couldn’t find anything from 10 of the 32 authors. I was able to verify, though, that nine of them were either working for a broadcast company, were not covering sports, or were still university students before 2011.) Overall, the hero narrative wasn’t as present as I anticipated. It was in about 40% of the sample. However, it was from about 69% of the sports journalists. So, it wasn’t that all sports journalists utilized hero mythology in their Armstrong coverage, but the ones who did, did it a lot. Their content referred to Armstrong as a “hero,” “virtual saint,” “godlike,” “icon of hope and inspiration,” “saintly,” “supergenes,” and “America’s greatest untarnished sports icon,” among a long list of others. The earlier the story was published, the more prevalent the hero myth was. There was no statistically significant difference between publication and the use of a hero narrative. However, the hero myth and Armstrong’s cancer survival were intertwined. The more frequently sports journalists addressed doping allegations, the less frequently they mentioned Armstrong’s status as a cancer survivor. Sports journalists’ then-most common retort to doping accusations were that Armstrong had yet to fail a drug test, the French were salty over an American’s Tour success, and/or that USADA leadership was suspect.

What stayed with me the most, though, were the themes that emerged from the 32 sports journalists’ reaction columns. There was anger. Most blamed Armstrong, arguing that we, as sports enthusiasts, were once again let down by sports heroes. What there was not, however, was anyone suggesting we as sports journalists could or should examine larger norms and routines, and how this kind of subterfuge could be avoided in the future. Like, our dependence on governing bodies’ narratives in our content creation. Who we deem as credible sources and why. The relationship between sports governing bodies and anti-doping agencies. The very real fear of losing access. The ostracization sports journalists face from other sports journalists when they go off the beaten path. Armstrong's story was a key moment to question these things. But, based on this sample anyway, it doesn't look like that examination happened.

This is only a summary of several themes that emerged from this research, and that I continue to explore in ongoing studies. The full paper, Who Is to Blame? An Examination of American Sports Journalists’ Lance Armstrong Hero Narrative and Post–Doping Confession Paradigm Repair, was just published in Journal of Sports Media. If you’re interested, you can find it here.

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