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Sport Philosophy Now, by Matthew McNees

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A philosophical contribution to the Lance Armstrong publishing industry.

Lance Armstrong at the start of Paris-Roubaix, 2012
Lance Armstrong at the start of Paris-Roubaix, 2012
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Sport Philosophy Now, by Matthew McNeesTitle: Sport Philosophy Now - The Culture of Sports after the Lance Armstrong Scandal
Author: Matthew James McNees
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
Year: 2016
Pages: 261
Order: Rowman
What it is: Marxist theory, post-structuralism, Lance Armstrong and the problems with sport
Strengths: Reading books you disagree with sharpens your thinking, they say
Weaknesses: It's as transgressive as a transformative hermeneutics of sport can be expected to be

"The whole of Lance Armstrong's career can be boiled down to an unexplainable desire commodified and simplistically marketed, and thereby crushed, by entities like Nike Inc, who replaced the authentic but dangerous and antisocial unconscious desire with the simple representation of 'Just Do It.' The problem is not just that this occurred but also lies much deeper. The problem is that, given our social relations and our lack in even bringing the essential elements of desire out into the open language field of sports and life, we create the opportunity for co-opting of desire along very simple economic lines where the work of desire is at the hands of investment."
~ Matthew McNees

Anything can be used to explain Lance Armstrong and his milieu. In the five years since Armstrong's Falli I've turned to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (when reviewing The Loyal Lieutenant), Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels (The Secret Race), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (The Race to Truth) and F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (Cycle of Lies). Similarly, Lance Armstrong and his milieu can be used to explain anything.

  • The economic collapse of the noughties? A Case Study with Google Data: Parallels of Doping Regulation in Cycling and Banking Regulation in Finance, by Bodo Herzog for the American Journal of Economics.

  • Identity issues? It's Not About The Book: A Cyborg Counternarrative of Lance Armstrong, by Ted M Butryn and Matthew A Masucci, for the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.

  • Religion? Recycling Religion: Lance Armstrong's Postmodern Spirituality of Suffering and Survivorship, by William JF Keenan in the Journal of Contemporary Religion.

  • Anti-Americanism? Lance Armstrong and George W Bush: French Anti-Americanism and Texan Traditionalism in le Tour and the War, by P Carr, for Sport History Review.

  • Masculinity? It Takes Balls: Lance Armstrong and the Triumph of American Masculinity, by Monica Casper and Lisa Jean Moore, for Men's Lives.

  • Offence? Riding Along With Lance Armstrong: Exploring Antapologia in Response to Athlete Adversity, by Jimmy Sanderson and Marion E Hambrick in the Journal of Sports Media.

  • Media studies? News Stories and the Creation of Myths: the Media Portrayal of Lance Armstrong as a Modern Icarus, by I Rusu, for the European Scientific Journal.

  • Copyright? 'I Want to Pump You Up!' Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, and the Biopolitics of Data-and Analogue-Flesh, by Graham Potts, for the M/C Journal.

  • Aristotle? Lance Armstrong and the Scarlet C, by Alan Belk, for the magazine Think.

In the five years since USADA judged Armstrong guilty, while Armstrong's commercial sponsors have fled from him like Thomas Wyatt's lovers, in the halls of academe his popularity is, it would seem, undiminishedii. And now we can add to the tottering pile of books about Armstrong and his Fall this academic text - written by an academic for other academics, or would-be academicsiii - from Matthew McNees, a visiting professor in the department of English at the Ashby Residential College in the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. In the pages of Sport Philosophy Now - The Culture of Sports after the Lance Armstrong Scandal McNees attempts to use Marxist post-structuralist theory to explain the Armstrong story and, at the same time, use the Armstrong story to explain his personal brand of Marxist post-structuralist theory.

His personal brand of Marxist post-structuralist theory? Despite being a quintessential insider - lest we forget, he is a visiting professor in the department of English at the Ashby Residential College in the University of North Carolina, Greensboro - McNees casts himself as the quintessential outsider:

"Let me be clear from the outset regarding my intent. I have to wear some masks in order to make this book happen. I put on the guise of a sports philosopher in order to engage with a field that I hope welcomes me into their ranks in spite of my criticisms. I hope, in other words, for authenticity. But is there really any hope here for an author such as myself who has nothing at stake and is therefore free to speak of branches and knowledge and institutions as he sees fit? In asking those who think seriously about sport to think seriously about this work, I am asking for what I perceive to be a sacrifice. And what do I ask to be sacrificed? I ask that the lines of separation and specialization be placed behind us in order that we might communicate freely beyond the funded tracks and lines of philosophical deformity. I ask that, in economic terms, we take a look at how how the division of labour is used against us and therefore demand that each of us rigorously criticizes our own positions, our own desires. I ask, in short, for the totality of the system to be exchanged for an on-going and ever-developing systematizing. I expect to create a storehouse of information that future thinkers might reflect upon in their attempts to synthesize the constituent elements of our fragmented self and self-interested society. May impoverished and noncontemplative self-interest and selfishness, if not exterminated, be examined."

McNees is not just a self-professed outsider - he is also a rebel:

"The crisis I suffered at the tail end of my academic work ruined any connection I could have had and that I yearned for with the men and women at the department, and even one man's job became the harbinger of that severed connection. All the deprivation of status as a social pariah, economic and titular notwithstanding, the true crisis - all true crises are possible only for the select who have long ago, before leaving the lost world of childhood, promised themselves to the true, the intellectually beautiful - came when this gatekeeper would permit neither speaking nor writing about authenticity. And how I wept at the day just as, years earlier, the professional poets would not let me have an undefined it in the line. And how I have since found, time after time, just like the child who promised himself to only the authentic, the same pursuit in the great thinkers of humanity."

A look at McNees's bibliography - five pages, running to 20/25 entries per page, a mix of books and articles - will prove instructive at this point. Let's forget the authenticity of the great thinkers of humanity and look at something closer to home: what cycling books are referenced? The full list is this:

  • Sam Abt - A Season in Turmoil

  • Lance Armstrong - It's Not About the Bike

  • Lance Armstrong and Chris Carmichael - The Lance Armstrong Performance Plan

  • Daniel Coyle - Lance Armstrong's War

  • Tyler Hamilton - The Secret Race

  • Paul Kimmage - Rough Ride

  • Daniel Lee - The Belgian Hammer

  • Jeremy Whittle - Bad Blood

Eight books. But a further six cycling-related titles are also listed. Six cycling novels:

  • Tim Krabbé - The Rider

  • Greg Moody - Dead Air

  • Greg Moody - Deadroll

  • Greg Moody - Derailleur

  • Greg Moody - Perfect Circles

  • Greg Moody - Two Wheels

Why so much fiction and so little history? The presence of the fiction is easily answered:

"To prove that fiction was more real than fact in cycling is easy because the era in question, the era of the Lance Armstrong scandal, bore little truth through its journalistic channel. In this chapter, we can turn our attention away from reality in order to get at reality - quite the paradox, but it's true because the only popular accessible sourceiv that asked meaningful questions in the 1990s about the contemporary sports industry under which Armstrong grew to power was Greg Moody's series of cycling murder mysteriesv, published between 1995 and 2002."

Did Moody's novels - published between 1995 and 2002 - really ask more meaningful questions of cycling than journalists did in those years? There is a very important word you will not find anywhere within the pages of Sport Philosophy Now - The Culture of Sports after the Lance Armstrong Scandal, not even once: Festina. To borrow something from Jean Baudrillard, McNees seems to think that the 1998 Tour de France did not take place. Only McNees seems to think it really didn't take place, isn't just playing games à la the French provocateur. But Festina matters here, for Moody's books were more informed by the events of the 1990s - the public reporting and the private gossip relating to the first decade of Gen-EPO - than they were by the events of the noughties to which McNees relates them.

More importantly - and you might expect a visiting professor in a department of English to know and acknowledge this - detective novels of this kind tell the reader things they already know: they are comfort food, they show the dark underbelly of the world as we know and fear it really is and offer us the hope of a knight in shining armour, the detective, showing the way to the light, or at the very least sacrificing himself for us. For Moody's novels to have worked, readers had to already know much of the world he was telling them about. And they knew that from the journalism McNees so effortlessly dismisses.

Such complaints about accuracy and effort are easily batted aside:

"We search for meaning, we attempt to understand ourselves and the world, we thereby engage in a struggle to untangle fact from true essence. The foundation of our thinking is this moment. Facts are but time spots that posit the 'real' in individual form. Individual being of every kind accidentally tangles with the essence, inseparable from the so-called scientific or natural understanding of us claims to be. How much exacting and laborious work, then, should be called upon when making claims about our individual lives in all their social relations! If this is the ethical paradigm in which we find our attempts to express 'fact,' then how far removed is the world of sports fact from its essence. How can this be so? How can fact be less real than fiction? Because the attempt to understand ourselves involves an ethical choice about the extent of exactitude and labour - or any in the case of many authors - is the path of least resistance that Lance Armstrong followed by creating a highly systematized doping programme. Both examples, the author regurgitating information uncritically and the endurance athlete making gains through EPO and PEDsvi, follow the well-trodden road of social conformity. As is easy to see, Armstrong and the authors who supported him uncritically or diabolically are society's conformists, and in [Moody's central character] Will Ross, we have a dangerous non-conformist."

So now we have a non-conformist outsider, a rebel, preaching a doctrine that values an alternative to facts, a doctrine that diminishes truth in favour of a greater truth. And who, as a solution to the problems he identifies, offers getting rid of the current structure of governancevii:

"Cycling needs a new entity capable of creating, articulating, and instituting a powerful and lasting educational aspect that is such a rigorous and complete appendage that the governing body cannot survive without it. This new entity needs to, first, understand and, second, articulate the paradox of sport. The fundamental paradox it must get across is that, on one hand, elite sports necessitate an inordinate amount of desire and, on the other, a rigorous ethics must be brought into this fundamental necessity of sport by creating a new paradigm. The new entity must 'sport' philosophy now, so to speak. Any current governing body, I feel, should be replaced immediately if it cannot create this paradigm shift. Replacing a current governing body does not mean replacing all persons involved but means legislating a new paradigm. Husserl's fundamental separation between those who, as I am here, seek to refound the basic principles with which we base our rational, scientific approaches to, in this case, developing athletes and those who will do the work based on these new, better principles means that the majority of workers can stay and simply conduct their work under a new template, a new design, a new ethics. It is only through action that the lived relations of all can be modified."

McNees is, it must be said, a man of action and is actually already practising what he preaches. He is the co-founder of an organisation called Cyclus Sports that claims to have created franchised teams in six US citiesviii, with those teams having their own league, and promises "to change the face of cycling as we know it." Cyclus, the founders claim, avoids any sponsor who has past connections to anyone convicted of doping. Paradoxically, while Cyclus proudly proclaims it won't take money from Nike - one of Armstrong's former sponsors - they seem to have no problem listing Rudy Project as a sponsor. Even more paradoxically, Cyclus proclaims an ambition to ride the Tour de France. How quickly we go from draining the swamp to swimming with the alligators.

There is actually no point in offering counter argument here, no point in pointing out deficiencies and paradoxes in McNees's argument for McNees frames within his argument a defence that dismisses disagreement while gently massaging the ego of those who nod along uncritically: disagreement is based on misunderstanding and misunderstanding is the result of a lack of intellect. Nothing here is open for debate.

And that is actually sad. A century ago, the ideas being explored here by McNees were being debated, largely on the pages of the French communist daily L'Humanité. The notion of cyclists as workers of the pedal - ouvriers de la pédale - was espoused by Henri Desgrange himself in the pages of L'Auto. The economic relationship between the riders, the race and the teams was the real subject of the series of articles Albert Londres wrote for Le Petit Parisien as he travelled around France in the summer of 1924 following the Tour. There have always been calls for cyclists to be treated fairly, equitably, ethically. This is the type of debate that the people in the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists are fostering today as they attempt to breathe new life into the CPA. This is an important subject, one worthy of scholarly input.

The likes of Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard - two of the great thinkers of humanity championed and aped by McNees - may have had very little to say about cycling by the time the era of post-structuralism came aroundix but other scholars have had much to say on the subject. I would like to count McNees's effort as being among them but that is difficult. For, sadly, like so many before him, people he himself takes shots at here, McNees is just using Lance Armstrong. He is not willing to engage in a debate. Which makes engaging intellectually with his ideas almost impossible.

i A phrasing that carries within itself a reference to Milton's Paradise Lost as another prism through which to view Armstrong

ii If anything it's probably been enhanced. Google Scholar, for instance, lists 55 articles published between 1999 and 2005 with Armstrong's name in their title, another 90 published between 2005 and 2012 while the period between 2012 and now saw the appearance of 117 articles.

iii At $80.00 it's safe to say it's not aimed at Joe and Joan Punter

iv McNees himself, earlier in the book, said of Moody's works that they were "fringe fictional novels" and noted that they were "not widely distributed"

v McNees says that "as far as I know, Moody founded this subgenre [of cycling murder mysteries]." Here the author's lack of research - his wilful ignorance - is obvious: Moody might be due credit for coining a title for the subgenre (or the credit may be due to the marketing people employed by his publisher, VeloPress) but he is far from the first to mix cycling and murder in fiction. Frank Dickens's Three Cheers for the Good Guys and even A Curl Up and Die Day are English antecedents from the 1980s. Earlier still, in French cinema, there was Jean Stelli's Cinq Tulipes Rouges.

vi EPO is a PED but McNees either doesn't grasp such niceties or doesn't care about them

vii By current governing body McNees means USA Cycling - he is shockingly parochial throughout and doesn't seem to realise that there is a world beyond America's borders, or how America fits within that world

viii The website only lists four: Greensboro, Pittsburg, Raleigh, Charlotte, with those teams feeding into a national squad

ix Among the French theorists Robert Redeker's Les sports contres les peuples is about the only large-scale attempt to bring critical theory to cycling during the Armstrong era I am aware of