Postcard of a Hanging

Aug 21, 2016

Ryan Lochte’s public shaming – a Darwinian fall from grace…

I don’t think he reads many books. But if there’s one book that belongs on Ryan Lochte’s nightstand right now, it’s this: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. It came out this spring to glowing reviews and the title pretty much says it all. Lochte’s current predicament could be a case study for a future expanded paperback edition.

Public shaming has always been a preferred form of societal revenge. Ronson points out that it was not only popular, but a state-sanctioned form of punishment in Colonial America. Nowadays it doesn’t need to be legalized; the ubiquitous cameras recording our every move and the light speed terror of social media make it inevitable. It quenches an ugly desire in all of us to devour that pound of flesh when public figures are caught behaving badly. The better looking, richer, and more successful, the better.

It happens in an instant. The outraged blood thirsty masses pounce and gorge in a frenzy. 48 hours later they’re wiping the meat from their teeth, while some scolding network anchor chides the shamed into a tearful mea culpa.

Did you watch Matt Lauer’s in-person sit-down with Lochte last night on NBC? They certainly made you wait for it. After teasing it in those ‘Still To Comes’ before commercials, it wasn’t until an hour and forty-five minutes into the primetime broadcast that Bob Costas finally offered its airtime – at 10:30pm. Like you weren’t going to wait. But until then, enjoy more rounds of men’s diving…

Then, there was poor Ryan, hair dyed back to a respectable color, wearing a collared shirt, those wide bedroom eyes glistening as Lauer laid into him. He did it with a light touch. It wasn’t an Oprah scolding. It was more the disappointed uncle routine. Matt’s a pro, never losing sight of the long view. Chances are Lochte may be forgiven four years from now and Lauer’s show of restraint might come in handy. I could have filleted you back then, bro, but I didn’t, now quit talking to Billy Bush and come on back to Uncle Matt… 

It was clear Lochte had been coached, and say what you will about his self-evident lack of, um, intellectual capacity, it can never be said that Lochte isn’t coachable. While his boys were back in Brazil facing the music under those bright nasty lights he was busy finding the go-to spin doctor in crisis management. He hired “PR guru” Matthew Hiltzik, whose past clients include Justin Bieber, Alec Baldwin, and lying doping slugger Ryan Braun. Hiltzik, it seems, is the Winston Wolfe for shamed celebrities.

He’s gotten bigger names out of worse jams. It’s a fair bet that Lochte will wiggle free of this mess with Hiltzik’s help. But first it will mean losing a few million dollars, as sponsors inevitably drop him. It will mean a coming ban by USA Swimming, my guess – for about a year. And it will mean getting his ass back in shape and returning to the pool with humility and fast times in 2018. He’ll be 34 then, long past the age of expected retirement for swimmers, but it’s doable and it’s not like he has many alternatives.

I really want to forgive the guy. We have no personal relationship at all, but we share some close friends and a former coach. I’ve heard the ‘inside’ Lochte lore for years. The general theme has always been this: Sure, he’s a goofy dumb ass, and yeah, he likes the ladies (a lot), but at his core he’s a huge-hearted, hard-working, overly generous guy. He’s the guy who’s always stayed to sign every autograph for every kid. He’s the beloved, approachable teammate. He might be simple, but he’s also sweet. And until that fateful trip to the gas station in Rio, he’d always stayed out of trouble, despite a partying public profile for over a decade.

All that’s been stripped away now in his public shaming. Good teammate? Yeah right, this is the guy who bolted out of the country and left his (mostly innocent) teammates holding the bag. Humble champion there for the kids? No way, did you see that hair, his desperate need for attention?

The press has been as scathing as it comes. Did you see Sally Jenkins’ piece in the Washington Post? It is vicious. It stops just short of calling for his public execution, or at least a public dragging to the stockades. Reading it, you could almost sense Sally salivating as she sliced into this rich piece of meat.

You read it, and if you know anything at all about Lochte’s day-to-day well-liked behavior, your instinct is to get defensive. But then you remember that asinine interview he gave to Billy Bush out on Ipanema Beach. Billy Bush. Of all people to run into in that moment. The ultimate celebrity sucking babbler happens to come strolling by and asks Lochte about his night. And what did Ryan say? That a pack of Rio bandits posing as cops circled their cab, got them out, forced them to the ground, but hero Lochte refused, had a gun cocked and put to his forehead, said ‘whatever’ like the fearless, clueless stud, before giving over their cash and going on their merry way back to the Village.

Hiltzik fed him the word ‘over-exaggerated’ in that interview with Lauer. It was repeated like a mantra. Here’s another phrase for that interview with Bush: Total bullshit. It was bald faced lying. It was shameless and self-absorbed, and beyond stupid. It set off an international incident.

That was the match that set it all off. It wasn’t their behavior at the gas station, as dumb and drunken and disrespectful as that was. What created this public shaming is the lying ass interview Lochte gave to Billy Bush.

Watch it again and it becomes harder to forgive. It’s the sort of recorded screw-up that makes you doubt everything you believed about someone.

I’m going to try. This is a guy who’s built up an awful lot of goodwill over the years. I’m going to try not to judge him for his worst moment in life. I’ll do my best to remember all those stories of him sitting with kids and signing their autographs and being accessible and kind to every fan and teammate, in every moment, public and private, for years on end.

But for now, Ryan Lochte will remain Public Asshole Number One. He needs to pay for that transgression with public humiliation. It’s become an American Way. Hoist up someone very attractive of questionable intelligence, vain and vulnerable, make them your guilty pleasure, your avatar of baser instincts, lust and loathe them in equal measure, resent their success as you fuel it, and all that time await his fall. The moment when Darwin’s order will correct that basic injustice of someone so unfairly rewarded and grab it all away. It’s the finale you always hoped for. You knew it was coming, someday.

Did it feel good?