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Donating Your Body to Sportswriting

Why do athletes like Mike Tyson, Lance Armstrong, and Pete Rose keep reliving their sins in the press?

A year after he confessed on Oprah, Lance Armstrong welcomed a visitor to hell. In February, Esquire’s John H. Richardson stood before the front door of Armstrong’s Austin mansion  a downsized version of the biker’s former Texas abode. Richardson called Armstrong’s cell phone. Armstrong appeared at the door in workout clothes. He welcomed Richardson inside.

Armstrong no longer has the PR deflector shield provided by the Livestrong Foundation, Nike’s Wieden + Kennedy image contrivers, and the U.S. Postal Service team. Armstrong has a buddy who takes calls from the media. The buddy had told Richardson that Armstrong might be ready to talk more openly about his life in hell to Esquire. And, sure, send a photographer.

The buddy was there to meet Richardson, but vanished after a while. Richardson had Armstrong more or less to himself. The bet Armstrong was making was extraordinary.

As Armstrong gave a tour of the house, Richardson began to hoover up the details of life in exile. “I love crushed ice,” Armstrong would remark. It was crucial to his favorite cocktail, the “Lancerita.” He gulped down a few drinks, and over dinner Armstrong began “slurring his words,” Richardson wrote later in Esquire.

Armstrong maintains a big wine cellar. He plays golf with the fury of a Sunbelt dad. One of his five kids hops on his lap and asks to have a sleepover.

It’s funny. In Armstrong’s Tour de France–winning prime, the very same details might have been assembled to humanize him, to offer evidence he was a “normal” guy. But after Oprah, his exit from Livestrong, and a public shaming, the idea of Armstrong living a normal life is heartbreaking. Crushed ice is a Burger King salad.

Armstrong tried to apologize in Esquire. Sorta. He “makes a lousy penitent,” Richardson wrote. Armstrong said he was sorry for hounding and suing his enemies. But he wasn’t very sorry he doped; he thought of EPO as the official sports drink of the Tour de France. He wondered why it’s taking longer for him to be forgiven for his drug use than it did Michael Irvin. He ventured a clumsy metaphor about Nelson Mandela that left you wondering whether Armstrong identified with Mandela or F.W. de Klerk.

“His cri de coeur,” Richardson told me, “is he says people thought it was this great story: this cancer saint who starts a foundation, raises millions, rides a bike, and all that. And then they decided the opposite: that he was a cancer devil who cheated and lied. He feels neither one is really him.”

Armstrong’s hope was that the “real” guy might emerge from the pen of Richardson, whose best Esquire profiles include his nuking of Newt Gingrich and his profile of abortion doctor Warren Hern. For that, Armstrong surrendered the script in a way that LeBron James never would. He offered up his mansion, his soul, his Lanceritas. He donated his body to sportswriting.

A fallen athlete opening his front door to a reporter isn’t new. According to biographer David L. Fleitz, Shoeless Joe Jackson granted an interview after he was banned from baseball. The reporter was able to sell a front-page story to The Sporting News in 1942. Muhammad Ali donated his body, his Muslim dogma, and his one-liners to reporters when Uncle Sam branded him a traitor for refusing to serve in Vietnam. Sports on Earth’s Greg Hanlon landed a two-hour interrogation with former Yankee Chad Curtis, who’s roasting in a special corner of hell for molesting teenage girls.

But there are three modern athletes who’ve practically pulled reporters inside by the lapels. They are Armstrong, Pete Rose, and Mike Tyson. They make perfect athlete-donors: They are famous enough to sell magazines, desperate enough to grant interviews, and unresolved enough — in terms of the courts, their former fans, or the Hall of Fame  to be the stuff of great stories. They offer “the drama of the mighty fallen,” Hanlon told me — “how these guys have everything in the palm of their hands and fucked it up.”

Their donations sprawl across media. Rose wrote a memoir, starred in a Grantland video, and talks to everyone willing to stop by his Ironman autograph-signing sessions. Tyson has been offering himself up since Gary Smith profiled him in 1988. Last year, his Undisputed Truth was a Spike Lee–directed stage show, an HBO special, and a 592-page memoir.

John H. Richardson was at least the third reporter to whom Armstrong has extended an invitation since his Oprah confession. Last January, Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall texted him and asked, “Hey, man, want to go for a ride again?” Hall had biked with Armstrong for a pre-disgrace 2001 profile. After a time, Armstrong invited Hall to come to the house. “He couldn’t have been more accommodating,” Hall said. “He was basically sitting there opening up his chest. ‘What do you want to talk about?'”

New York Times columnist Juliet Macur got an invite to visit Armstrong a few months later. She was one of Armstrong’s Javerts (she wrote the book Cycle of Lies). But she was the reporter Armstrong wanted to level with, to tell what he called the “true story.”

The encounter becomes a type of theater. The athlete tells the reporter he’s unjustly reviled. But the athlete also insists he’s doin’ just fine, really. Eric Drath, who directed the 30 for 30 short on Rose, described the pitch as, “I’m the big victim here, but my life’s not so bad!”

Voilà moments of contrition are rare. To writers, athletes offer what public relations experts and CIA spooks call limited hangout: admit one sin, dissemble on another. Armstrong apologized for lying but not for doping. Rose refused to revisit the details of his gambling when Kostya Kennedy was writing his book Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. In James Toback’s documentary Tyson  one of the most gonzo donations in recent memory  Tyson called Desiree Washington, the woman he was convicted of raping, “wretched swine.”

It’d be nice to think that an athlete’s fall from grace has led him to rethink the merits of the sporting press. This isn’t the case: a donating athlete treats reporters roughly the same way he did when he was atop the world. Pete Rose was a great quote long before his banishment from baseball, as Michael Sokolove demonstrated in his 1990 book Hustle. Dick Schaap explained to Sokolove that Rose “was one of the very few modern players who understood how much writers could do for you and how easy it was to play them.”

The writer Tom Callahan told a story about the afternoon in 1982 when he and the New York Times’s Dave Anderson met with Rose while he was chasing Ty Cobb’s hit record. “I know everything about Ty Cobb except the size of his cock,” Rose boasted.

Anderson changed the quote to “the size of his hat.”

The next day, Rose cornered Callahan and protested, “Seven and five fucking eighths! Seven and five fucking eighths!”

Today, Rose is the same eager beaver. He initially balked when Kennedy told him he was writing a book. “I think he was interested in how he could make some money off it,” Kennedy said. Even when he was told none was coming, Rose let Kennedy interview him while he was signing autographs. In Las Vegas, Rose pulled out $500 and sent an emissary to make a bet on a race at Hollywood Park. Kennedy left thinking that not only was Rose’s business with the commissioner unresolved, but that in some sense Rose himself was unresolved too.

We know the phylum of athletes hasn’t changed but hold out hope there is a “new” man. Tyson, as Esquire’s Tom Junod wrote in a 1999 profile, “functioned as a national redemption fantasy … and each time the fantasy has been frustrated, the fantasists have responded by declaring him fit only for punishment, an unregenerate barbarian after all.” Yet fantasists kept coming — after the rape conviction, the ear bite, the road rage  and Tyson was nearly always happy to talk.

Athletes like Armstrong, Rose, and Tyson are worth repeat visits. Because even if they haven’t changed, the nature of their situation has. When Scott Raab met Rose for a 1997 GQ profile, he wrote that scandal “swallowed him up and took him drifting down into nothingness, into a pale nearly beyond remembrance.” Nearly two decades later, after baseball’s PED scandals, Rose was back from the phantom zone. He had become an elder statesman of hell. Reporters now ask him to offer advice to his fellow damned. Last year, Rose went on Today and told Matt Lauer that he’d counsel Armstrong to “come forward as early as you possibly can.”

What do writers get out of talking to an athlete at his lowest? First, it changes the balance of power. When an athlete is an All-Star, the reporter is a supplicant. LeBron James offered a gentle reminder this month. When an athlete is in exile, he becomes the supplicant. He needs us  or, at least, he’s willing to give us five minutes before turning his back.

The fallen athlete offers the chance to write about big ideas. A Pete Rose story is really about the eternal naïveté of baseball and the eternal naïveté of Pete. A Lance Armstrong story is about piss-test madness and the perils of sainthood. A Mike Tyson story  well, open Dostoyevsky and pick something.

Those issues make the sportswriter gaze inward. “Like any sports fan, I’m totally happy to read a piece on who was the best quarterback ever,” said Kostya Kennedy. “Or who’s the best lefty pitcher in baseball. But this is another type of argument, you know. It really tells you a lot about your own sense of morals and how you feel about forgiveness. It tells you a lot about yourself  how you feel about Pete Rose.”

Kennedy stayed neutral on whether Rose should get off baseball’s banned list. But the de facto thesis of athlete-in-hell articles is that the athlete has perhaps suffered too much. John H. Richardson used an interesting device in Esquire in which he interwove scenes of Armstrong’s new bummer of a life with the upbeat video messages he still sends to cancer patients. “Because he did it,” Richardson said. “He does it. He clearly gets sustenance from it.” It doesn’t let Armstrong off the hook, but he seems like less of a jerk.

The author of a disgraced-athlete story has two roles: He is the travel writer describing hell and the angel cracking open the exit door. The great Newark Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg and I recently got to talking about his experience interviewing Muhammad Ali during his insurgent prime. “He gave us a reason to become what we wanted to become,” Izenberg said.

And what did you want to become? I asked.

“The righter of all wrongs,” Izenberg said.

What the athlete gets out of donating his body to sportswriting is a thornier question. Lance Armstrong doesn’t have to talk to anybody but his lawyers. He could follow Mike Tyson’s vow  false, it turned out  to fade into Bolivian.

But the sportswriter standing at the front door is a potential lifeline. Chad Curtis figured Greg Hanlon’s article might spring him from prison. “He thought the most likely outcome of talking to me is that I would write the Chad Curtis–got-railroaded story,” Hanlon. But as Hanlon listened to Curtis hold forth, the insight that Hanlon gained was how Curtis had lured underage girls into his clutches.

We suspect that what Pete Rose wants for his repeated donations is help getting into Cooperstown. According to Kostya Kennedy, this is a secondary goal, if that. What Rose really wants is money. When Kennedy’s book landed Rose on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Rose’s suspicions melted away. He gave Kennedy plenty of time for a profile last month.

Mike Tyson wants the press to be his confessor, his psychiatrist. In Tom Junod’s 1999 profile, the idea advanced by Tyson’s then-wife was that Tyson “has finally found a redemption story all his own”  a.k.a. that Tyson had settled down as a loving dad. But what makes Junod’s piece unforgettable is that this stab at redemption played out while Tyson’s son visited the old man in prison, where Tyson was stuck after a parole violation.

What Lance Armstrong wants is fuzzier. “He’s trying to get back in; he wants to be let back into society,” said Michael Hall.

He’s halfway there. In April, Outside magazine invited Armstrong to star in a how-to video about changing a bike tire. (An editor’s note wrestled with whether Outside was profiting off of Armstrong as it had during his glory years.) The new issue of Texas Monthly has Armstrong, along with Texas nobility like Willie Nelson and Laura Bush, picking his favorite place in the state.

John H. Richardson is too wise to think that Armstrong will ever be “forgiven,” whatever that means. The fact that he won’t, ironically, will lead Armstrong to make further donations. As Richardson put it, “Does he sit there and say, ‘If only I hadn’t taken EPO in 1999 … ?’ No. I think he’s a little bit more hard-nosed and realistic than that. It’s more about, ‘How do I get through this?’”

The answer, I suspect, is that he’ll wait a decent interval, slug down a Lancerita, and call a reporter.