There are a couple of ways to react if you and your friends pull into a gas station, try to use the bathroom and find that the door is locked. One is to ask the manager for the key, let yourself in and remember to wash your hands and say thank you when you’re done.
The other is to break down the door, destroy the soap dispenser and toilet paper holder and then tell the press that you were held up at gun point by criminals pretending to be police officers. The choice you make says a few things about you.
By now most people know which option U.S. Olympic swimming star Ryan Lochte and his somewhat lesser known teammates Gunnar Bent, Jack Conger and Jimmy Feigen chose. What’s more, the U.S. State Department knows it and the Rio de Janeiro police department knows it and the International Olympic Committee knows it, and so does the rest of the world, which would have been perfectly happy to get all the way to the end of the Olympics without a scandal.
Bent, Conger and Feigen were held in Brazil until the mess got sorted out. Lochte—he of the 12 Olympic medals and the blue-green hair and the impossible-to-miss grill—had skated out of the country already.
So what gives with this guy?
It says something that the best of a bunch of bad explanations for what they did is that they were likely drunk, that whatever alcohol they did consume was their first in a long while and that they were celebrating and cutting loose after months of abstemious training. That led them to behave like uncounted young, drunk men have behaved across the arc of human history—which is to say like jerks.
But there may be more explanations, particularly in the case of Lochte. His look-at-me behavior includes t-shirts reading “Google Me” and “Listen to Ryan Lochte,” and his short lived reality TV show titled “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” It all suggests a particularly naked kind of vanity. Even the invented story about the robbery-that-never-was featured him as the star of the drama. The other athletes in the imaginary tale lay down on the ground when the gunmen told them to; Lochte, in his telling, refused, whereupon a gun was put to his head. And the response the too-cool-for-school hero gave? “I was like, ‘whatever,” he said.
There was more that was troubling too about the particular tale the Lochte gang told. They would certainly not be the first people ever to make up a story to avoid getting into trouble for bad behavior, but they are among the few who would choose an alibi that was actually more sensational, more conspicuous and far more likely to be investigated closely and end badly than simply telling the truth.
There was also the heedlessness of the needs of their host city, which was already laboring under a reputation for being rife with crime and unsafe for tourists. Rio had worked hard to make the games safe, and to improve their rep in the process, and Team Lochte blew that effort up.
All of this has gotten people applying an increasingly popular label to Lochte et al: narcissists. There is certainly the exhibitionism and the indifference to the needs of others that is characteristic of narcissists. As I learned when I was reporting and writing a book about narcissism, it is entirely impossible to try to diagnose someone from afar, but that doesn’t change the fact that what quacks like a duck sometimes is a duck—and there are a lot of self-adoring ducks in the world of sports.
Part of the reason for the high incidence of apparent (though, in fairness, undiagnosed) narcissism among athletes may simply be the fact that they are so often stunning human specimens who, at least in the case of swimmers, perform largely unclothed. If I looked like Ryan Lochte when I went to the pool I’d have a pretty high opinion of myself too.
More important though is that the narcissistic temperament and the world of sports too often have one very powerful thing in common: a lack of consequences and accountability. Narcissists are notorious for believing the rules don’t apply to them—which is why some of them break so bloody many of them. For most people, that belief is an illusion; for athletes it’s often the truth, with high-priced lawyers and public relations teams standing by to clean up their scandals.
Not all athletes, however, feel the same love from either their handlers or the public. U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas was pilloried on Twitter for the high crime of failing to put her hand over her heart during the national anthem and for having what the twittershpere considered bad hair days.
Lochte and the boys, meantime, got a pass from some people. One supporter, objecting to the use of the term “thug” as a descriptor for Lochte, tweeted, “Wait, someone is a thug because they got in a fight?” Well… yes.
And it wasn’t just Lochte lovers doing the enabling. Said Mario Andrada, official spokesman for the Rio Olympics after the news of the incident broke: “Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you take actions that you later regret. Lochte is one of the best swimmers of all time. They had fun. They made a mistake. Life goes on.” Lochte, it should be noted, is 32.
It hardly excuses Lochte or any of the Rio perps to say that, Hey, they’ve had it too good so it’s not their fault. There are plenty of athletes who have had it just as good or even better and have been ladies, gentlemen and first-rate citizens throughout their careers.
But there are also athletes—far too many—who have parlayed their privilege an entirely different way. Being rich, famous and gorgeous is a very good thing—unless you let it make you a very bad character.