This is not a post defending Ryan Lochte. This is a post to make you think about how you think about Ryan Lochte.
I will be the first to admit that I have always had a soft spot for Ryan Lochte. Like dozens of people, I watched his reality show when it was on. He has that kind of oaf-ey jock charm that I was susceptible to in high school and the first half of college, so there’s some nostalgia there. By most accounts, he’s a good guy and, undeniably, a spectacular athlete.
I have made a living, in different capacities, talking to famous people and about famous people. Being six inches away from someone — anyone — and having a conversation can be a humanizing experience.
Which is why I find the public indictment of Lochte and the non-robbery/over-exaggeration/lying/international incident that happened in Rio so troubling. When news came out that he lied about whatever went down — and if you read some reporting by USA Today, it’s still kind of unclear — the character assassination by the court of public opinion was immediate and unrelenting, as most character assassinations are of people who were once held in high regard and suffer the grave misfortune of revealing their mere mortal status. The ugly moments we’ve all had, his made uglier because he (I’m going to guess unwittingly and perhaps while still slightly intoxicated) fell back on a nasty narrative about Rio and Brazil in general and one that was, at first blush, too easy to believe.
So, he lost lucrative sponsorships and the mercurial nature of good will from a public who is always ready to attack and opine. There were discussions of white privilege, the stereotype of the ugly American, that at 32, he’s too old to be acting this way.
Well, consider this: Those who reap the benefits of privilege usually don’t examine what those benefits are. Not being required to do that kind of deep introspection is, like, the definition of privilege. That’s no excuse, but consider that if you’re ignorant of something, you’re ignorant of something until someone — or, you know, life — educates you about it. And I’ve found trying to teach someone about privilege is a fool’s errand.
If you think no other thirtysomethings party and do stupid things, then you must not know a lot of thirtysomethings. If you think no other thirtysomethings party and do stupid things and lie about them, then you might just not know a lot of people.
And yes, most thirtysomethings are not 12-time Olympic medalists wrapping up the Games in a foreign country. I get that.
When artists (actors, directors, musicians) do or are accused of doing horrible things, we are often asked if we can separate the art from the artist. You need look no further than Nate Parker for that cognitive-emotional dissonance casserole. It’s a question I still struggle with. In many instances, I have to say “yes” because the inability to do so would actually prevent me from doing my job. And I love my job.
In this case, then, can we separate the athlete from the act? And in all the discussion of how “terrible” Lochte is, where and what are the solutions?
People applauded his sponsors for dropping him. They called him insincere in his teary interview with Matt Lauer. But he was never set up to win with either. Lochte was damned to lose before and after Rio. And there are not enough primetime TV minutes, not enough rotations in the spin cycle, in the world for him to acknowledge his “tantics” or apologize that could have satisfied anyone — because it’s way easier as a judging public to grab our pitchforks than our tissues.
And still, the tide turns. Now that Lochte is facing charges in Brazil that could land him up to six months in jail, there is a sudden shift to be back on Team Lochte, it would seem. “Brazil needs to let this go” or variations of this are a common refrain in the avatar-less comment sections of news articles.
So, which is it now? Burn him at the stake for being granted a spot on “Dancing with the Stars”? Or chill out on the hot dumb jock because Brazil, wow, man, you’re overreacting?
We are a forgiving society. I think it’s in our American DNA to not only forgive someone but also embrace a good comeback. I’m pretty convinced that “Dancing with the Stars” was actually created for that. But I do think how you think about Lochte, his fallout and what will be his ultimate redemption says a lot about the self-righteousness we have yet to examine within ourselves.
You don’t have to have sympathy for Ryan Lochte. He’s getting/going to be punished for awhile. But what people seem to have lost sight of is whether you are required to have a little — even an ounce — of empathy, a bead of sweat’s worth.
Because think about your darkest, crappiest moment — the moment you’re least proud of. Maybe it’s a moment from your entire life; maybe it’s the worst moment from last week, the last hour. And then think about the faceless, nameless judge-y masses examining that under a microscope. Are they holding pitchforks or tissues? I can guess which one.