Millions of people are caught up in the debate about Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah, and some of those conversations are about whether or not to forgive. Christian tradition teaches that God does indeed forgive, but when it comes to the media and the public, it can be another matter indeed. Add to that Armstrong’s role as the founder and figurehead of a nonprofit organization that’s raised more than $500 million to support cancer survivors, and the discussion must shift to a question of trust.
When it comes to public indiscretions, most people seem to have a hierarchy. Celebrities and sports figures can get off relatively easy. Moving up the list are business leaders, then politicians, then pastors, priests, and nonprofit leaders. Those who presume to influence how we live often experience the most severe criticism when they implode, which makes Lance Armstrong such an interesting case.
Yes, he was an athlete, but because of his struggle with cancer, he positioned himself through LiveStrong as an advocate – and hero - for those in a similar battle. But after years of deceit and betrayal to his family, donors who contributed millions for his organization, and the volunteers who spent untold hours working for the cause, can that trust be rebuilt?
Watching his interview with Oprah, I kept asking these questions:
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What do you think of Lance Armstrong now?
Did he man up and take responsibility? Although he acknowledged his doping, he also said he still doesn’t consider himself to be a cheater. He mentioned he actually looked up the word in the dictionary, and since most of the other competitors were doping, he still doesn’t think it applies to him. But just like in courtrooms, when it comes to the public, remorse matters, because remorse is more than an admission of guilt. It indicates that you are taking responsibility, and that’s the first step toward rebuilding trust.
Was he humble? Ego gets most people into trouble in the first place, and especially with sports, political, business, and other leaders, humility can often be a challenge. It’s impossible for a jerk to rebuild trust, therefore a humble attitude is incredibly important. But as Alessandra Stanley pointed out in the New York Times, not once did he actually look into the camera and say, “I’m sorry.”
Did he offer to repair the damage? Admission of wrongdoing is one thing, but what about all the personal reputations he’s trashed? He admitted to being a “bully” who felt a territorial need to fight back when his reputation and livelihood was threatened. But in the interview, he made little mention of re-building the bridges he so often burned with people – some who loved and admired him the most.
Trust is an easy thing to destroy and a difficult thing to rebuild, but it can be done. Even after the embarrassing episode of a White House affair with an intern, President Bill Clinton starting rebuilding. After his presidency, he launched the Clinton Global Initiative and raised millions to solve pressing challenges. While embarrassing the Office – not to mention that the public humiliation of his wife and daughter won’t be forgotten, his efforts as an ex-president have shown that he’s still capable of making a positive difference.
Personal redemption and winning back the public’s trust are two different things. One allows you to rebuild your personal life, but the other allows you to repair damaged relationships, rebuild your professional reputation, and continue to make a difference.
In Lance’s case, I think he has a long way to go.
Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is a filmmaker and media consultant. His latest book is "Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media." He writes daily about the intersection of media, faith, and culture at philcooke.com.