On Thursday night, the ultimate sports survivor gave up.
Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France and cancer-fighting icon, stopped fighting the doping charges that have dogged him for years. He quit via press release.
There are only two logical conclusions to draw from this: Either the Texan truly is innocent or he’s trying out a new form of the non-admission admission. And we thought we’d heard them all before.
However, the implications are complex and borderline mind-boggling. Armstrong built his Livestrong movement, a charity that’s reportedly raise roughly $500 million for cancer research, on the platform of his incredible story – he wasn’t supposed to live, let alone become the most decorated cyclist ever. If he cheated, does that message get undermined? Or should the public care less about his alleged actions on the field of sport in light of his contributions to the world?
Minneapolis sports-marketing pro Andrew Miller (AM) and I (TV) are going to try to work through this …
AM: Let’s get away from Lance Armstrong the fallible human being for just a moment and focus on the Lance Armstrong brand.
We knew the idea of Lance Armstrong. We could never begin to know the individual.
I wore the Livestrong x Nike Lunarglide+ 3for my run this morning. I don’t wear the yellow Livestrong bracelet anymore, but I did back in 2004 while my grandfather was fighting cancer. (I counted four runners wearing them this morning, by the way.) As far I know, I’ve never purchased anything endorsed by another cyclist. Like most fans, Armstrong is the only cyclist I’ve ever instantly recognized. I couldn’t tell you this year’s Tour de France winner without googling it.
To me, Armstrong was a symbol of persistence. The irony here is it appears that persistence wasn’t necessarily pure. Immediately, the Lance Armstrong brand is tarnished. But can anyone honestly say they were shocked by Armstrong’s de facto admission of guilt?
TV: Doing lots of good on a platform built (potentially) atop deceit – to me, this is what makes this doping case different than any others in sport. The question has been asked: Aren’t philanthropic cheaters better for society than run-of-the-mill selfish cheaters? Frankly, I’m not certain. And, no, I’m not being dramatic.
There is no question that Armstrong inspired others battling cancer. He provided, at worst, a placebo effect – they thought they could beat the dreadful disease because Armstrong did. Atheists might argue that religion does the same thing – tricks people into believing in a fable. It just feels … gross. We want to think the things that inspire us are pure. When they don’t turn out to be, we’re apt to feel foolish and stupid and conflicted.
Then again, maybe we don’t care anymore. Reports say that giving to Livestrong has spiked in light of Armstrong being stripped of his championships. Interesting. I wonder if those people are giving to stop cancer or giving to support a guy they still believe is a hero. And does intent even matter if the money is getting to where it’s supposed to?
AM: The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right?
Nah. We’d rather believe the hype, drink the Kool-Aid, assume the best. Speaking of dope.
TV: In a way, we’ve gone full circle with this discussion. That is, there are alleged and confirmed cheaters in every sport, if not every walk of life. People are starting to get used to the idea and arguably, not caring anymore. They like greatness, even if achieved through questionable means.
But this is different, so much more personal because of the cancer cause. Although by no means exactly the same, there is at least a twinge of similarity to the Joe Paterno situation in that can’t make sense of one man being both an icon for morality and the employer of a child abuser.
The funny thing is, that two-tone take shouldn’t be so hard to digest. For example, I’m not 100-percent good or 100-percent bad. I donate time and money to the Children’s Miracle Network in the honor of my late daughter, Breley – should those efforts be discounted if I, say, chew out my oldest daughter, Mya, for not cleaning her room? Probably not. Of course, the stakes in my example are vastly smaller; Armstrong is involved in an elite, international competition and in hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s reasonable that emotions and opinions would be elevated beyond the everyday, especially in the social-media era.
Still, in a sense, we are Lance Armstrong, and we don’t want to be a shade of grey. Good or bad, black or white. That’s easy and predictable and comfortable. It’s also a thing of the past, if it ever really existed at all.