When I was living in Toronto in the late ’90s, I was a big Roger Clemens fan. Improbably, the presumed Hall of Famer had signed with the Blue Jays and then, more improbably, reeled off several career-best seasons well into his 30s. I was surprised and delighted — then surprised and disappointed when credible evidence emerged that Clemens had taken performance-enhancing drugs, most notably the eyewitness testimony of Brian McNamee, his longtime trainer, who testified that he’d injected these drugs directly into Clemens.
Clemens denied it. He still denies it. He stood trial for perjury and was acquitted, which to his supporters may be enough to exonerate him. But I was struck at the time by the force of Clemens’s denials in the face of overwhelming evidence. He did not seem to be lying, exactly, yet I did not believe he was telling the truth. I remember thinking how some powerful men who see themselves as victims become so convinced that what they did was not wrong that it becomes indistinguishable from thinking they did not do it at all.
This dynamic comes up often in pro sports. In 2011, National League MVP Ryan Braun tested positive for PEDs. He managed to get his suspension overturned, then held a lengthy press conference in which he self-righteously detailed the unfairness of the accusations. Later he confessed that he was doping after all. Or consider Lance Armstrong, who not only denied doping allegations for years, but aggressively sued his accusers even as multiple teammates called him out. His recurring claim: He was innocent, they were liars. He once told a reporter who doubted him, “You are not worth the chair you’re sitting on.” Later he admitted to Oprah that he was guilty all along.
In these cases, the accused never simply deny; they attack their accusers with vengeance. They characterize their opponents as seeking to topple them due to some dark, unjust motive. It’s not that they believe they didn’t do what they’re accused of; I think they know they did. But they also believe passionately that any attempt to use their behavior against them is fundamentally unjust. And that, in turn, justifies their denials.
*A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!