David Hoppe

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:: Suing Lance Armstrong

A readers’ revolt

by David Hoppe

Does anybody care about Lance Armstrong anymore?

Apparently some disgruntled book buyers in California do; they’re suing Armstrong and his publishers for $5 million, claiming that books Armstrong wrote as nonfiction memoirs about his exploits are full of lies.

They want their money back.

Armstrong, you will recall, was, for the better part of a decade, one of America’s top heroes. First he beat cancer. Then he proceeded to win the Tour de France not once, but seven times, a sporting feat of monumental proportions.

Throughout this (truly) incredible run, doubters claimed Armstrong was cheating, that no one could do what he was doing without doping. For one thing, the world of elite cycling is notorious for its chemical dependence. That Armstrong could be straight — and could win and keep winning — didn’t make sense. Unless, that is, Armstrong was superhuman.

Armstrong seems to have liked having people think of him as superhuman. That’s a pretty sweet gig. The problem with it, as we now know, is that the doubters were right. Armstrong was cheating.

This, however, didn’t keep him from writing (with the help of sports columnist Sally Jenkins) books about what an inspirational guy he was. One of these books, It’s Not About the Bike, was a New York Times bestseller.

Some of those people who bought copies of It’s Not About the Bike say that a book claiming to be a true story should be about the facts. Since Armstrong cheated, they believe his book was sold to them under false pretenses.

Lawyers for Penguin and Random House, Armstrong’s publishers, say the unhappy book buyers have yet to identify specific lies in any of Armstrong’s books. These lawyers argue that the books are protected under the First Amendment, since they do not constitute what’s called “commercial speech.”

Wikipedia, by the way, defines commercial speech as speech by a company or individual for the purpose of making a profit. I’m not sure if anyone has ever tried to argue that a ghost-written memoir about a famous sports star, published to coincide with that star’s latest exploits, constitutes deathless literature, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Armstrong’s unhappy former fans do have a precedent on their side. Readers in New York, Illinois and California won a lawsuit against author James Frey and Random House in 2006, after it was found Frey made things up in his so-called memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Frey and his book were plugged by Oprah on her daytime talkshow. When it turned out that many of the details in Frey’s story were untrue, Oprah demanded a public apology. The final settlement covered customer refunds, lawyer’s fees and a donation to charity.

I can understand readers feeling betrayed by authors like Frey and Armstrong. Their readers found these stories informative and, more important, inspirational. With Frey, you had a guy who said he went through a hellish drug problem and lived to tell about it. Armstrong not only overcame cancer, he had the discipline and heart to excel at world-class sports. He was a living metaphor for the human spirit.

Except for the cheating.

In July of 2004, Armstrong won his sixth Tour de France. A few months later, in October, a story ran in The New York Times Magazine by journalist Ron Suskind. Suskind quoted an unnamed aide to then-president George W. Bush, saying that people like Suskind were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which the aide, later identified as Karl Rove, defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Rove went on to say: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore…We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

A reality, in other words, based not on facts but magical thinking, arrogance and self-promotion. So we were told a war was necessary because there were weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq. This was a lie; anyone paying attention knew it was a lie. But that didn’t keep Americans from voting for Rove’s boss in the election that November.

Armstrong, in the meantime, insisted he was clean, that the people who claimed he was a cheat were jealous malcontents. In the world of cycling, he acted as if he was an empire. He created his own reality, and he put that version of reality in his books.

We humans are storytelling animals. We use stories to help us figure out our selves and each other. We are so hungry for stories it’s easy to mislead us. That’s a problem Kurt Vonnegut wrote about: "We are what we pretend to be,” he said, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

This is true — not just for the people who write memoirs, but those who read them.