In the almost two weeks that have passed since Ryan Lochte’s drunken visit to a Rio gas station, he’s been subjected to a public shaming usually reserved for politicians caught in affairs.
NBC’s Matt Lauer dressed him down in an embarrassing interview that exposed Lochte as goofy and inarticulate. John Oliver devoted a segment of his HBO show to humiliating him. Even the normally jolly weatherman Al Roker excoriated him for his “exaggerated” story of a robbery.
He’s also been dropped by his sponsors Speedo, Ralph Lauren, Airweave and Syneron Candela, who showed much less patience with his behavior than Nike did with Kobe Bryant’s alleged rape.
Capping it off, yesterday Brazilian authorities charged him with falsely reporting a crime.
Lochte is clearly guilty of extraordinarily poor judgment, and he compounded his mistakes by lying to the police and media, all while representing his nation. He also left his teammates hanging, which is not cool. But it also seems clear that the heaping of public scorn has much to do with the venue, his persona and this specific moment in time, when society’s patience for dumb jocks–particularly dumb white jocks–may be at an all-time low.
Certainly, the worst place and time to do something stupid is during the Olympics, where the world’s eyes are literally focused, and the assembled global media is desperate for a fresh story. Michael Phelps received far less opprobrium for his second DUI, a far more serious transgression. But Phelps had the good sense to be busted in a non-Olympic year.
Phelps, with his scary game face, is also much better at playing the role of serious competitor. Lochte, with his dyed hair and reality show aspirations, exudes a frat-boy, beer-bongish nonchalance that may be charming until you realize he’s 32 years old. Vice, who called him a “Human Jagerbomb,“ may have pinned him perfectly.
Not long ago, the media and sports world would have shrugged off the antics of Lochte and his teammates as another example of boys-being-boys (IOC spokesman Mario Andrada tried to do just that, to widespread mockery). But attitudes toward the sports culture are changing rapidly, and misbehavior from athletes and the organizations that protect them are now under intense scrutiny.
Consider the outrage over the NFL’s handling of running back Ray Rice, who initially received a two-game suspension in 2014 after his arrest for domestic violence, and which was only extended indefinitely after video of him striking his fiancée surfaced (to put that suspension in perspective, quarterback Tom Brady will sit out four games this season for not fully inflating footballs). NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was pilloried for his seeming indifference to domestic violence until it became a publicity problem, and rightly so.
The media’s tolerance for coddling jocks may have finally turned with the case of Stanford’s Brock Turner–also a swimmer–whose six-month sentence for rape, and the court’s concern about his future well-being, set off waves of shock. Judge Aaron Persky, who turned down the prosecutor’s recommended sentence of six years, is subject to a recall petition and has requested a transfer to civil court rooms.
“White privilege” and “male privilege” were once concepts familiar only in progressive academic circles; now they’re used in ESPN headlines. The internet has given a platform to voices who are willing to call BS when they see it, and the ubiquity of video means actions can no longer be easily denied. The increased attention paid to sexual assault and police violence means the public is more attuned to injustice, whatever form it takes.
This was the pool that a drunken, happy-go-lucky Lochte splashed into. It’s no surprise he finds himself sinking.
Not everyone has accepted the shifting cultural paradigm–there’s still huge swaths of the country that prefer their sports served without judgment. It’s also worth remembering that the media and public can get it wrong–the Duke lacrosse case is a vivid example about what happens when outrage eclipses facts.
Lochte may well recover. The US is famous for its second acts, and we’re particularly generous with athletes. Quarterback-turned-dog-torturer Michael Vick has had a productive career after his release from prison. Indicted perjurer Barry Bonds is a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins.
Lochte has already been offered a sponsorship deal with Pine Bros, which markets “forgiving” cough drops, and he’s scheduled to appear on Dancing with the Stars. In time, the details of his trip to Rio will fade and we’ll move on. But for athletes and celebrities engaged in questionable behavior, he’ll also serve as a reminder that, more than ever, the world is paying attention.