It’s a cold, late-winter day in 2015, and I’m sitting on the deck overlooking the pool inside Queens University of Charlotte’s Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation, at a table, across from Ryan Lochte.
My voice recorder is capturing the conversation, so I’m just using my notebook to scribble highlights, and at the moment, I’m grasping for an adjective that captures him.
“Polite.” “Unassuming.” “Uncomplicated.” “Childlike?”
Then Lochte mentions his best friend and teammate Cullen Jones is part owner of a nightclub called Vault in the EpiCentre, and the fact that they can drink for free there.
He grins at me, slightly. “I’m still learning. I mean, I haven’t gotten in trouble, especially here (in Charlotte). Just because ... I try to surround myself with the people that know I can’t be doing that stuff. So if I ever get to a certain point where, like – where I can’t make the right decision, they’ll be like, ‘Hey Ryan, don’t do that.’ They always have my back.”
If only “they” had been there to get his back in Rio.
While I probably won’t shed a tear for Lochte if he has to downgrade to a Mercedes or even – gasp! – a Toyota – I’m kinda-sorta starting to feel for the guy.
On Monday – a little over a week after a night of hard drinking, some “immature behavior” and an “over-exaggeration” put the 12-time Olympic medalist at the center of the Summer Games’ biggest scandal – Lochte lost sponsorship deals with Speedo USA, Ralph Lauren, Airweave and Syneron Candela.
Darren Rovell, a sports business reporter for ESPN, tweeted Monday afternoon that those sponsors will be hanging onto roughly $1 million they had earmarked for SwimMAC Carolina’s Team Elite star.
That could make footing the bill for a car like the white Bentley Continental GT I saw him driving around in last year a great deal more difficult.
And while I probably won’t shed a tear for Lochte if he has to downgrade to a Mercedes or even – gasp! – a Toyota – I’m kinda-sorta starting to feel for the guy.
Back in college, sometime before my 21st birthday (so, literally more than half a lifetime ago), I was out acting like a moron with some fraternity brothers and had an unfortunate encounter with a Tucson police officer, who ticketed me for public urination and for being a minor in possession of alcohol, both misdemeanors.
This was not a shining moment for me. But it was easy to make go away: As a first offender, I simply had to attend a four-hour alcohol education workshop, then my record was wiped clean. (FWIW: That was not only my first run-in with the law, but also my last.)
And then there’s Lochte. He also drank too much. He also needed a restroom but couldn’t find one. He also was acting like an idiot.
Only he was doing it during the Olympics, which 1) he was representing the United States in, and 2) were taking place in a borderline-unstable country that was desperately trying to keep its reputation for thuggery from becoming a distraction.
It’s all about context, isn’t it?
Making – for me, at least – the question of whether or not to have sympathy for Lochte rather complicated.
On the one hand, I still stand behind this tweet I posted last Thursday, as the story was still unfolding:
On the other, does he deserve to lose a million dollars, which amounts to almost all of his income? (To feel that kind of pain, I would have had to have been kicked out of college for my drunken indiscretions – and not permitted to enroll in another.)
That’s not even to mention the severe public whipping he’s received.
For instance, does he deserve the ridicule he got from HBO’s John Oliver?
During Sunday night’s episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the late-night host excerpted a small portion of the lawyerish-sounding, “bulls---” (Oliver’s word) apology Lochte posted recently on social media last Friday, then quipped:
“There is no way he wrote that. I’m pretty sure that Ryan Lochte thinks ‘Game of Thrones’ took place in the late 1800s, and still doesn’t understand how mirrors work,” Oliver said as his crowd roared with laughter. The comedian then flashed up a Photoshopped image of Lochte waving his hand in front of a mirror and affected a Sean-Penn-in-“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” accent: “ ‘Dude, stop copying me.’ ‘I’ll stop when you stop, brah!’ ”
After a montage of clips of Lochte making inane statements like “What defines me? (Pause.) Ryan Lochte,” Oliver used a title card that referred to the swimmer as “America’s Idiot Sea Cow.”
Or, does Lochte deserve the vilification he got from Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post?
“Ryan Lochte is the dumbest bell that ever rang,” was the first sentence in a column she wrote last Thursday. Toward the end of it, she dropped the hammer: “The main quality Lochte has shown in all of this, apart from asininity, is obliviousness. ... On Thursday morning, even as (Jack) Conger and (Gunnar) Bentz were in a police station and authorities were mulling potential charges, he posted an idiotic video of himself. It was a distortion-lensed, cartoonish video of him babbling at his friend and fellow American swimmer Elizabeth Beisel. Lochte eventually deleted it. Which was too bad because it was a perfect portrait of a halfwit.”
Truth be told, the presence of fellow Olympians Conger, who is 21, and Bentz, who is 20, does leave Lochte more open to some sucker punches here. Lochte is 32, which seems young to people like me, but in fact makes him – as Jenkins pointed out in her piece – old enough to be their uncle.
Remember, these were Lochte’s words: “I try to surround myself with the people that know, like, I can’t be doing that stuff. So if I ever get to a certain point where, like – where I can’t make the right decision, like, they’ll be like, ‘Hey Ryan, don’t do that.’ They always have my back.”
Lochte should have had Conger’s and Bentz’s backs. Lochte should have said to them (and to SwimMAC teammate Jimmy Feigen), “Hey guys, don’t do that.”
Twenty and 21 is not necessarily old enough to know better. Thirty-two, however, most definitely is.
And so I’ve felt within my rights to make a joke or two at his expense along the way.
Look, I don’t know Ryan Lochte. I met with him a couple times in March of 2015 for the profile I wrote about him; otherwise, we’re strangers.
But in the two and a half years since he moved here to start training in Charlotte, he’s enjoyed a level of celebrity and a popularity eclipsed only by Hornets owner Michael Jordan and a few select Carolina Panthers.
So, during the first week of the Games – as kind of a brag – I re-circulated my old story and also made a photo of Lochte and me (taken the day I interviewed him for the first time) my profile picture on Facebook. I posted the photo again on social media a couple days later, as part of a collage that also featured a snapshot of me with Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas.
After the scandal broke and after it was clear Lochte had been “over-exaggerating”? With that as context, I re-posted the photo with a big red “X” over his face, meant as kind of a spoof of something someone might do after an ugly break-up, more to try to entertain friends who’d been following along than because I abhor the guy.
It got 109 “Likes” and many positive comments.
But one person ripped me. “Making childish memes of him is deplorable. Treat ppl how you would want to be treated regardless of what they’ve done.” (Disclosure: I don’t know this person and I’m not sure why we were friends on Facebook; we aren’t anymore.)
Another wrote, more diplomatically: “While I can’t say that I’ve taken it to the level that he did, I can say that I’ve never been put in a situation where I was put on national tv within 12 hours of being as hammered. Drunk and still trying to deal with the situation that I’m in. That said, to me...it’s how you handle yourself once you get sober. What I saw in the interview with Matt Lauer, was a guy who had total regret for what he’d done.”
My counter-argument would be that that’s a slippery slope – letting what someone says when they’re sober excuse something stupid they’ve done when they’re drunk. But I respect the proclivity for forgiveness.
And here’s the most compassionate way to look at it, through the eyes of a friend of Lochte’s and Feigen’s.
I’m sure it’s probably easy to hate them from the outside. I don’t understand their behavior and I certainly don’t condone it. But I will be by their sides as they move forward.
Christie Shefchunas, a friend and former coach of Ryan Lochte’s
“Am I supposed to ditch them now because of this?” Christie Shefchunas wrote Sunday in a Facebook post that I’m sharing with permission. Shefchunas is a former coach for SwimMAC’s Team Elite, and she remains close with Lochte. “Am I supposed to turn my back because everyone else has? I won’t do it. What they did was stupid and wrong, I won’t deny it. But I won’t give up on them either.
“I have to be honest, the hate that was thrown at them this week has been overwhelming. And I get it, I’m sure it’s probably easy to hate them from the outside. I don’t understand their behavior and I certainly don’t condone it. But I will be by their sides as they move forward. And I hope that the unconditional love given from the people that don’t give up on them can help them mature and build character.”
In the end, the main takeaways from #LochteGate are simple, direct and clear (and we’ve certainly covered this ground before with athletes who have committed more serious offenses, like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods):
1. Actions have consequences.
2. If you’ve done something bad, consider being completely honest about what you’ve done, because if you lie and get caught, the consequences will be much worse.
I’ve texted Lochte twice this week to offer him a chance to speak more directly to Charlotte. He hasn’t replied – and I don’t expect him to – but if he I did, I imagine I’d hear someone who is genuinely remorseful.
Because of the lost income? Sure, to some extent. But moreso because of all the other stuff.
“Some people are gonna love you, some people are gonna hate you – you’re not gonna have everyone love you. It’s not gonna happen.”
It’s another cold, late-winter day in 2015, I’m back at Queens University of Charlotte, and this time it’s Cullen Jones talking into my recorder.
Though Lochte is frequently painted as unable to express himself and thoughtless, Jones presents as polished, reflective and intuitive as he talks about his best friend (who is out of earshot, posing for the photographs that would accompany my story).
“I know he’s had a hard time with that,” Jones continues, “because he’s that type of person that likes to please people and make people happy. That’s who he is. And to kind of feel like people don’t like him even though they don’t know him, that’s tough on him.”