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Memo to Ryan Lochte: Avoid the Slippery Slope

Ethical Failings: Unprincipled Behavior and not Accepting Responsibility

The only thing Ryan Lochte is sorry for is getting caught. The 12-time Olympic medalist in swimming disgraced the U.S. and disrespected the people of Brazil when he concocted a story about being robbed at gun point with the gun held to his head. His disgraceful behavior included pulling down a sign at a gas station, urinating behind the station, lying about the incident, and playing the victim game. His actions demonstrate a lack of character that should lead to being banned from further Olympic competition, fines, and a loss of endorsements as has been done by Speedo, Ralph Lauren and others.

Lochte’s behavior demonstrates the danger of taking the first step down the ethical slippery slope. By lying about what he did and what he said, including the pathetic explanation that he was intoxicated and couldn’t remember all the details, Lochte avoided taking responsibility for his actions. If he had just apologized right away to the people of Brazil and the U.S. Olympic community, most people would have accepted it and moved on.

Lochte needs to learn the lesson that actions have consequences and an ethical person considers them before saying or doing something that may harm others. Once a lie is told it eventually backfires when being probed because it is harder to remember a made up story than to retell the truth each time one is questioned by the authorities.

Peeing on property, tearing down signs, and creating a public nuisance is wrong in all cultures. Lochte’s actions were the immediate cause of the Brazilian security guards insisting on payment before letting the athletes go. The guards demanded payment for the damages, which was a reasonable response given the uncertainty of when the athletes might leave the country. The swimmers were prevented from leaving the gas station until they paid $50 for damages, or about 1,600 Brazilian Real.  

Lochte’s actions reflect moral relativism. He told Matt Lauer during part of his ‘apology tour interviews’ that whether he and the other swimmers were victims rather than vandals depended on “…how you want to…make it look liked. Whether you call it a robbery, whether you call it extortion. Or us paying just for the damages.” It sounds a lot like Bill Clinton’s explanation about his sexual actions with Monica Lewinsky: “It depends of what the meaning of the word ‘is’, is.

Furthermore, Lochte left the other swimmers behind as he hastened back to the U.S. right after the incident presumably to escape any sanctions, prosecution by the authorities, and to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. He left the other swimmers in a bind. Lochte was the leader of the group and was blamed by the other swimmers for instigating the incident and they questioned his memory of the incident.

One of the other swimmers, Jimmy Feigen, was pulled off a flight out of Rio last Friday and required to pay a $10,800 fine (about 35,000 Real). Gunnar Bentz, another swimmer, apologized to the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Swimming, Team USA athletes, and the University of Georgia, which he attends. But I didn’t hear an apology to the people of Brazil.

The Lochte incident and his thoughtless behavior smacks of an ‘ugly American.’ It’s a shame that it has tarnished the reputations of American athletes. For me it demonstrates selfishness and entitlement behavior because of the way Olympic medalists are treated as conquering heroes. Like many things in our culture, its fame and notoriety that is worshipped rather than goodness and giving back to others.

Rather than act as true champions and role models, some of these medalists let it go to their head and feel they can do just about anything and escape the consequences of their actions. I can only hope the U.S. Olympic Committee comes down hard on Lochte and punishes all the swimmers involved in the incident to set the tone that any such behavior will not be tolerated. It’s one strike and you are out.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 23, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.