A Promising Beginning

Joe Papp is a former professional American road racing cyclist and US National cycling team member.

From a young age, Joe loved cycling more than anything else. His racing career began when he was just 14 years old. Then, at the age of 19, he joined the United States National Team.

At some point, though, Joe dropped out of cycling game for a couple years to finish up his degree at the University of Pittsburgh. When he returned, he found that while he was just as fast as he ever was, everyone else had gotten just a little bit faster. He just couldn’t keep up.

From TwitterJoe Papp as a young man with big cycling ambitions, pictured with his wife. 

Joe Meets EPO

Joe was frustrated with is performance. So much so that would actually cry himself to sleep at night.

He eventually confided all this to a friend who also happened to be a cyclist. This friend recommended he go see a particular doctor. Joe made an appointment, explained his situation, and was prescribed a drug called Erythropoietin – more commonly known as EPO.

EPO is a drug normally used for kidney failure, chemotherapy, and other medical conditions involving red blood cell loss and anemia. It counteracts these by increasing the production of red blood cells.

Red blood cells are what carry oxygen to the muscles. For a cyclist, more oxygen means more energy, which results in increased stamina and performance. 

Joe goes to the pharmacy and picks up his prescription. The next day he injects it into himself for the first time. As he does the same the next day, and the day after that and the day after that.

EPO turns the body into a high-yield factory for red blood cells.

Sharing is Caring

Eventually, Joe moved to another cycling team where he discovered that everyone else was using EPO. They even used it openly in the locker room.

It began to feel normal. It began to feel morally okay.

Then, of all things, there came a shortage of EPO in the United States. Through a friend, Joe was able to make a connection with a factory in China that manufactured the stuff. He started importing it for himself directly from the source.

But then some of Joes’ friends got wind of his hookup. They asked him to start importing it for them too. Joe says, “Of course!” Because that’s what friends do.

So that’s the story of how Joe Papp, a guy who just wanted to keep up with other cyclists, became the kingpin of an international drug smuggling operation, a crime of which he was convicted in 2011.

FROM WBURSince serving his sentence of 6 months house arrest and 3 years probation, Joe Papp has become an anti-doping advocate.

It Always Starts Small

Joe Papp’s turn to drug kingpindom started innocently enough. It started with that small choice to go see that doctor. Then that next small choice to fill that prescription. Then that next small choice to do that first injection. After the first, each subsequent bad decision came a little bit easier and a little bit easier.

That’s how our brains work!

Here’s what we know about the human brain: the first time we deviate from our moral center – for example, the first time we tell a lie – our brain responds intensely to that deviation. We feel a sense of guilt about it. We feel a sense of shame about it.

But if we in short order go on to tell another lie, our brains respond a little less intensely. That makes the next lie a little easier to tell. The next lie we tell after that comes easier yet. Until, without intending to do so, our brains have established a new baseline for what is normal and we’ve shifted our moral center such that we do things we would never before think we were capable of doing.

The first lie might not come easy to our brains. But the second, third, and fourth ones will!

King David’s Turn to Crime

In scripture, we see this brain chemistry at work nowhere more clearly than in the story of King David.

In chapter 11 of 2 Samuel, David does not start out as a murderer. He starts out as a simple coveter of his neighbor’s wife. But then he makes that first small choice: that choice to have Bathsheba brought to him in his palace. With that decision, he goes from being a simple coveter of his neighbors wife to being an adulterer with his neighbor’s wife.

Then, when he learns that Bathsheba is pregnant, his next bad choice comes a little easier to him. He calls Bathsheba’s husband back from the frontlines under false pretenses with little compunction. 

Then, when her husband refuses to go home and “wash his feet,” causing David to lose all hope of covering up his indiscretion, his next choice comes a little easier. He sends an order that leads directly to her husband’s death without the slightest pang of conscience. 

No, David did not START out the story a murderer, but little by little, choice by choice he ended up there! 

By dint of our brain chemistry, we are all Joe Papps. We all are all Davids. We all have that innate capacity to drift farther and farther from our moral center, and not even know it. May we likewise  have the wisdom to recognize the big impacts of even our seemingly small choices.

I came across the story about Joe Papp on the Hidden Brain podcast’s Liar, Liar, Liar episode. You can listen to it here.