Fifty shades of grey – the troublesome case of Lance Armstrong

Let me state for the record – I was wrong. Well, sort of.

Two months ago, following the announcement that USADA would place harsh sanctions upon Lance Armstrong, including a lifetime ban from the sport of Cycling and stripping of his seven Tour de France titles, I wrote a rather blistering blog regarding USADA’s front man Travis Tygart and what I considered to be his witch hunt against Armstrong. Quite melodramatically, I titled the piece “USADA – Proof that we no longer reside in a democracy?” – but that is an accurate summation of what I felt at the time.

When I wrote that blog, I was disgusted by the way USADA prosecuted their case – their lack jurisprudence, their sole reliance on the testimony of shady characters, most of whom were admitted dopers themselves who likely harbored personal distaste for Armstrong. I questioned how an organization whose sole reason for existence on this earth is to monitor and regulate the compliance of Olympic athletes could spend such an overwhelmingly large amount of their time and resources investigating a retired cyclist – during an Olympic year, no less. I took issue with the very tone of Tygart’s press releases – their language spoke not so much of a determined legal obligation to shed light as it did bitter personal vendetta. I questioned USADA’s authority and jurisdiction to strip anyone of Tour de France titles. I admired Armstrong greatly and saw the entire episode as a miscarriage of justice.

Little happened to change my opinion in the seven weeks or so following USADA’s announcement of sanctions. They promised to produce a mountain of evidence to support their claims. As the days and weeks passed, I watched smugly as USADA missed their initial deadline to produce said evidence. I felt a growing confidence that in the end, Tygart would reluctantly and quietly close his case and retreat, much as US Federal Prosecutor Jeff Novitsky had earlier in the year.

That all changed late last week.

People need villains just as much as they need heroes

With USADA’s release of 1,000 pages of damning evidence against Armstrong, the former champ’s fall from grace has been harsh and swift – an unmitigated disaster for him, and a big disappointment for those of us who supported him. Just two days ago he was dumped by sponsors Nike, Trek and Anheuser-Busch, among others, costing him an estimated 30 million dollars annually in endorsement money. On the same day, Armstrong rightly stepped down as chairman of his highly successful cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong, in order to spare that organization some of the fallout from his troubles. He has been widely – and justifiably – criticized in newspapers and television and on radio sports talk shows across the country. He has gone from hero to villain, and it struck me this week that people need the one just as much as they need the other.

Say it ain’t so, Lance…

Lance Armstrong is one of the most polarizing sports figures of our time – perhaps of all time, and it will be interesting to see how his legacy continues to unfold going forward. To be certain, his brand has been devastated. His days of earning endorsement money is likely behind him for good – you just don’t pay someone to endorse your company who has approval and trust ratings lower than the United States Congress. But he is only 41 years old. He still remains active in Livestrong and he has an opportunity to slowly rebuild his image. We are a forgiving people in this country, but we only forgive those who humble themselves and admit wrongdoing. So far, Lance has admitted nothing and has even doubled down on the blame game. This doesn’t bode well.

Shades of grey

There are so many facets to Armstrong’s story. He is a cancer survivor who stared death in the face, then went on to inspire millions with his thrilling exploits in the world of cycling – winning arguably the world’s toughest sporting event a record seven consecutive times. He is also a serial liar, misleading the world for over a decade, raking in tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money – ill-gotten gains, as it turns out – in the process. He is the founder of Livestrong – an organization which has raised millions upon millions for cancer research and has provided much needed support for those grappling with that awful disease. He is also an out of control megalomaniac who has employed scorched-earth tactics against those who dared cross him and, it seems apparent now, even bullied reluctant teammates into complying with his systematic and pervasive doping program.

He is equal parts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A hero, (though greatly tarnished now), and a villain. Fifty shades of grey – though most of those shades seem a little darker now than they did a few weeks ago.

If Lance were smart, or if he were able to overcome his ego long enough to listen to good advice, he might issue a statement explaining himself. He owes that to his supporters – because they are not simply fans, they are donors. Better yet, he should hold a press conference in which he finally comes clean. He should sit there and answer every last question from media and fans alike. And then he should go away for a long time – spend time with his family, figure out where things went wrong, get that ego under control and focus on quietly rebuilding his image in the coming years. Focus those considerable energies on the lighter shades of grey.

Still a fan

I am still a Lance fan. To be certain, I am bitterly disappointed, and I will never again trust a thing that comes out of the man’s mouth. He is a liar and a jerk and an off-putting, pompous ass. But then again, athletes at the top of their sports have a long and well-documented history of being off-putting, pompous asses (see Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods for starters).

I cannot ignore the overwhelming testimonial evidence in USADA’s report – especially the statements from those I respect, such as George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer. But I will always have fond memories of Armstrong’s amazing seven-year run in France, and the fact remains that even if he cheated to achieve those titles, he still pedaled faster, longer and harder than all of the other cheaters. I will always support and admire his Livestrong organization. What he has done for those battling cancer through that charity transcends anything he ever did on the bike – it makes him more important than any Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Despite everything he has gotten wrong – which is a lot – he has inspired millions of people to fight their disease. That achievement is separate from his current troubles and can never be tarnished.

I am still a Lance fan. A smarter one now to be sure, but still a fan, nonetheless. Life is complicated. One’s life is not written in bumper sticker slogans but rather in long, often complex paragraphs and pages and chapters. Here’s hoping for better times and happier chapters going forward.

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