Saturday, July 18, 2009

Do the Right Thing...Baby

In September 2008, Lance Armstong announced his return to professional cycling and his decision to once again ride in the Tour de France. Much speculation about his motives and attitudes exploded in the media as the cycling world held it's breath for 10 months during Lance's preparation. Making sure, for instance, that he was available for the complete scrutiny of the international anti-doping community to ensure that his return would be far above reproach. He also joined the cycling team, Astana, for free. That's right, he will be riding for Team Astana as an unpaid, uncompensated, team member.

And Astana is not just any team. Astana boasts the likes of Alberto Contador who is favored to win this year, along with Andreas Kloden and Levi Lipheimer. Lance stepped onto the most powerful cycling team in the world with perhaps the best coach in the world, Johan Bruneel. He has told the press that his return to cycling is to move awareness of his fight against cancer through his "Livestrong" foundation to a global stage. From a strictly marketing point of view this was a brilliant move. It's difficult to find a professional athlete or celebrity who is the front man for an organization that can actually step straight into an international sporting event as a participant, not just give a speech or throw out an add, but actually compete. That's like saying, "Oh today I feel like competing in the Olympics for a Gold Medal, I wonder if they will let me in." And not just in any event - the three week long international frenzy that is the Tour de France or TdF. Lance's participation in this event -- at any level, from coach, to sponsor, to lessor team member, to even spectator, would be sure to have garnered publicity from the throngs of fans and his supporters who still monopolize cycling events and continue to wear the highly visible, yellow "Livestrong" armbands, all without compensation.

But it is fairly clear, that not only will Lance ride in the event, he will compete at the highest level and vie to be a contender for yet another victory. That would bring his total to eight wins at the TdF. Not so fast, however, because with Alberto Contador on his team, how will Johna Bruneel, sort out his team leadership. As everyone knows, it takes a team to win the tour, and as Bruneel has pointed out through the years, there can only be one lead rider on any team. Bruneel has managed to have four riders in a position to lead his team this year, or so it is speculated.

But this blog, believe it or not, is not about Lance, or the TdF, or the Bike, or his foundation. I'm posting this blog to discuss one idea -- the idea of what constitutes professional behaviour in a professional sports. I've been told that being a "Pro" or a paid participate in an event has nothing to do with your conduct. For instance, you can be a professional criminal, break every civil, criminal, and moral law in the book -- lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top and still be considered a "Pro". Turns out you can be a "Professional" criminal in any occupation you choose -- in cycling we see this through the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs. So perhaps what I've been told is correct -- being a "Pro" is irrelevant to the conversation. Just to be a "Pro" doesn't require the individual to act with any higher code. I could stop right there and the debate would end. The word "Professional" is meaningless. I, however believe the word "Pro" transcends whether or not you receive a pay check. You either conduct yourself with grace, dignity, and act beyond the call of duty, in any situation, paid or unpaid, or you do not. Do we have a term to describe such an actor? I believe the term still is "Professional". And it has been the "unprofessional" acts of our "professional" athletes in this dialogue that have stripped meaning from this word -- and turned it into nothing more than a fee-for-service modifier.That is what I would like to discuss here.

One more piece of background. This discussion began because there was an event that occurred during the Stage 9 of the TdF that I found to be wholly unprofessional and labeled it as such on FaceBook. That event was the protest of the entire peleton of riders during that stage against what the TdF organizers created as an added challenge for the competitors on that day. The challenge was for the stage to occur without the use of race radios. The nine riders on each team would not be able to talk with their team car and coach via the radio. They would still be able to talk amongst themselves during the ride, or to drop back to the team car for a chat through the open window. This was the way the race communicated before the advent of the race radio. To use these radios to the advantange or disadvantage of a team or individual rider during a race is the subject of a huge discussion itself. The crowd is mixed but it is definitely skewed in favor of their use. However, the race organizers didn't decide all 21 stages of the tour would be run without radios, only two stages. Coincidentally, there are 21 teams in the tour so the math is easy. Only 6 teams acknowledged they were in favor on the rule to not use race radios while 15 teams were against this stage of the race -- clearly skewed against. To be completely fair, six stages of the tour then, should be run without radios...right? As it is, for various reasons, the organizers established that only two stages would be run without radio communications. And this is where our story begins...

Prior to the start of the stage all of the teams met behind closed doors to decide what to do during the stage without radios. When the race began, it was evident what they had decided to do. They decided to protest during the race primarily by not racing at all on that day. They soft petaled throughout the stage. The stage was uneventful, of little excitement, and a waste of every ones time. I labeled the riders as a bunch of babies who spoiled the stage because they couldn't have their way. In an event that has it's share of scandal and tarnish, why would these "professionals" provide one more black eye to the sport they love? Lance was one of the "Pros" who not only voiced his opinion over the rule not to use race radios, there is no question he was part of the organized strike...he soft pedalled just like everyone else. Oddly, I would argue, that since Lance is the only one riding who is not drawing a salary or bonus from his team, he is the only one in a position to actually protest. In which case, I would further argue, he is not a true part of the competition. Rather he is a side show act, a distraction from the the main event. The Team sponsors and the TdF organizers should be upset.

Perhaps they will be no backlash and all will be forgotten as within 24 hours another stage will have to take precedence. My point is simple. If you are a "Pro" you are paid to do something. If you fail to do what you are paid to do, you might still be a professional in the "collect a paycheck" sense. But you've robbed you clients of their value. In soccer there is a term known as a "professional" foul. This foul occurs when you are beaten by an opponent, perhaps you are feigned out of position and the player on the attack moves by you in a way where they now have a terrific opportunity to threaten your goal. If the player beaten has their wits about them and immediately recognizes the danger, they may reach out and grab the opponent by the shirt to slow or disrupt their play. A foul is called and the offending player will be issued a yellow card. The "professional" foul sacrifices a yellow card to thwart a possible goal by the other team. These professional fouls are accepted by the soccer community at large but in reality are simply cheating. And cheating, by my definition, is far away from behaving professionally.

To dig further into why I believe to be a professional means more than just collecting a paycheck, one has to understand why a professional collects a pay check to begin with. I could not collect a pay check to ride in the TdF or to play soccer for that matter. Why? Because I am not good enough. The athletes who are paid to play and race are professionals because they are good -- great in fact. Better than the common place. We pay professionals to work on our cars or put a roof over our heads -- I wouldn't pay riders in the TdF to build my house or work on my car. They might, for instance, attempt to change my spark plugs with a air hammer. Riders in the tour wouldn't know the right tool to use, even if you paid them. But you would expect them to know bike tires and although I can change a bike tire, don't expect to seem me in a team car anytime soon. I myself am paid in my own particular profession -- in which I try to do my best. But with tour riding, the sponsors of the team pay for even more. They pay to see the name of their company on the shirts of the best riders...those in front and those winning the competitions. The teams exist for the competition and when a rider does well they see their name in lights, so to speak.

Also, unlike other professional sports where the prize money and proceeds come from the viewing audience, with tour riding, the big money is in the tour sponsorship. The sponsors pay your salary and they are paying you to race--under contract--and in most cases not to cheat and not to get in trouble that will be an embarrassment to the team name. It's the contract with the team sponsors that caused the riders colluded with one another and why they still hopped on their bikes to complete the stage, albeit at a reduced pace. They were under contract to do so. Further, there can be no doubt they also orchestrated a low speed attack with a group of riders soft pedalling two minutes ahead of the field to sit their and make it look like a race was in progress throughout the stage. If they really had reason to protest they should have refused to ride -- that would get some attention.

You are either a professional or something else. Their profession is "Bike Racer" not protester. They could become professional protesters, I guess, if they wanted to join a group like Sea Shepard for instance. But even then, there is something about the way in which an individual plys their trade that lifts them above that of the ordinary -- something that makes it worth the money they receive. It's more than skill, it's more than a dedication to their craft, it's more than experience, and it's more than collecting a pay check at the end of the day. The hallmark of a professional is to always do the right thing -- like using the right tool for a job. In both victory and in defeat a professional always does the right thing. In the TdF, the great British sprinter Mark Cavendish, after he has won a stage, moves through the field and individually thanks all of the team members that put him on the podium. That's the right thing and we respect his actions. When defeated the professional athlete acknowledges the loss, congratulates the victor and moves on to next challenge. These are the respected actions of a professional and while they may not be required to earn a paycheck are the transcending qualities of a true "professional". A professional can always be found doing the right thing. The Stage 9 protest of the 2009 TdF by the riders was not the right thing.