October 17th, apparently, was the official “National Let’s Dump Lance Armstrong Day.” Virtually all of Lance Armstrong’s sponsors ended their arrangements with him today, beginning with Nike, and including RadioShack, Trek, Giro helmets, Anheuser-Busch and FRS. Wednesday morning, shortly after Armstrong announced that he was stepping down as chairman of the Livestrong foundation, Nike dropped their bombshell. As the day went on, other sponsors issued their own statements. Even Honey Stinger, in which Armstrong holds an ownership stake, announced that they were removing his image from their packaging and ads. By the close of business, only Oakley and a couple of smaller-scale sponsors had not made an official announcement as to whether they would continue sponsoring the disgraced cyclist. With all the articles that keep appearing, it’s hard to keep up. One of the best I’ve seen is from Bicycling Magazine’s Joe Lindsey, who gives a very good round-up of the day’s events.
After a week to digest the information contained within USADA’s “reasoned decision” and other documentation, it should come as a surprise to no one that Armstrong’s sponsors would pull the plug. The cyclist chose not to fight the anti-doping agency’s allegations. Did he really think that he would be able to walk away from USADA’s case fundamentally intact, save for whether cycling fans believe he was the winner of seven consecutive Tours de France?
With nothing to contradict USADA’s allegations and evidence, the only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that Armstrong did what he was accused of doing. Yes, he basically pleaded “no contest” and didn’t admit guilt. Even if the evidence was thin, or poorly documented, or ancient allegations that had been addressed in years past, the new material from people like George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, and Dave Zabriskie pretty much puts the last nails in the coffin of Armstrong’s credibility. And with Armstrong’s credibility in tatters, what benefit could a sponsor possibly get by continuing their association with him?
One writer at Forbes estimates that the loss of sponsorship deals will cost Armstrong about $150 million in future earnings. A truly staggering amount of money for those of us who work “regular jobs” to imagine. Still, with an estimated fortune of $125 million, Armstrong is unlikely to wind up drunk and homeless. Drunk, maybe — though not on any free Michelob Ultra, given that they’ve dropped him like the proverbial hot potato — but homeless? Not likely.
Meanwhile, Levi Leipheimer was in the news, too. Omega Pharma-QuickStep decided to sack Leipheimer, basically for admitting to doping as part of cooperating with USADA’s investigation. Leipheimer’s firing illustrates the dangers of speaking out, of admitting to what happened in the past. It’s great to see riders come forward and tell their stories — even if very belatedly. Doing so sheds light on the culture within the pro ranks back in the day. No matter what, it helps expose the magnitude of doping during the late 90s and the early 2000s. But at the same time, a message is being sent by the team owners and sponsors to their riders. And that message is, “Shut up if you want to keep your job.”
Someone like Levi Leipheimer, who is in the twilight of his professional career might not be so worried about losing his job. If he’s been smart with his money, he shouldn’t have to be too worried about income at least in the near term. George Hincapie had already decided to retire, so he clearly doesn’t have too much to lose — at least in day-to-day employment. But younger riders? My guess is they will look at Leipheimer’s firing and conclude that if they doped or if they are doping, there is little upside to admitting to it and even less to speaking out.
By contrast, Jonathan Vaughters, who runs the Garmin-Sharp team, has said he’ll stand by his riders who worked with USADA in their investigation. Dave Zabriskie and several of his Garmin-Sharp teammates who were involved in USADA’s investigation will have jobs waiting for them when their suspensions end early next year.
It seems to me that Vaughters’ approach is the better one, in terms of encouraging transparency about the past. The riders still face sanctions (though much reduced for assisting the authorities) and they will lose income during their layoff. But once the time is served, they should be able to return to competition. Levi Leipheimer may well find a team for next year — and he will be available just in time for a number of spring classics — but his now-former team’s approach will guarantee that their riders, at least, continue the code of silence.
It may be tempting to think that because “the world’s biggest doper” has been brought down, along with some of his key helpers and enablers, that somehow the sport of cycling will be cleaner as a result. That’s not necessarily so. It depends, to a large degree, on whether the teams and the UCI really want to put a 100+ year “tradition” of doping into the past. Cyclists don’t dope in a vacuum. The teams have been involved — even if only by tacit approval — every step of the way. And it appears that the UCI may also have known about, or been willfully ignorant and blind to what was (and is?) endemic in the sport.
If teams follow Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s approach, I would guess that few cyclists will be willing to cooperate with future investigations. If they follow Jonathan Vaughers’ approach, there may be some hope for a cleaner sport. But there will also need to be a concerted effort from those who govern the sport. One part of the solution is deterrence. If riders think that they can find a sympathetic official who, for a fee, could make a positive test vanish into the haze, they aren’t likely to stop using performance enhancing drugs and techniques.
Yesterday was probably about the worst day of Lance Armstrong’s professional life, aside from the day he was diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong has clearly suffered a big setback, especially for someone who enjoys being famous and being the powerful center of attention. I can’t imagine him quietly fading away and living off his investments. No word on whether Mellow Johnny’s, Armstrong’s bike shop in Austin, will be able to continue as a Trek dealer. If not, expect the shop to close in relatively short order. No word, either, on whether Anna Hansen, Armstrong’s girlfriend and mother of his two youngest kids, will stand by her man.
Lance Armstrong may be down, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. The big question is: Where does he go from here? For the immediate future, he has a long walk in the wilderness. Where that leads, I have no clue.
Jason Gay, of the Wall Street Journal, pens a good commentary, and ends his article by observing:
… there’s another opportunity here, for all of us to avoid falling prey to the easy myth-making and try to see athletes for the humans they really are.
Exactly. The lesson from the fall of the house of Lance is pretty clear. It’s dangerous to put athletes on a pedestal (or anyone else for that matter). We’re better served by remembering that these people are human, subject to the same temptations as the rest of us. There are other heroes — real heroes — who actually make a difference in our lives. People who do amazing things, not for the money or the glory, but because they are the right things to do. Not that we should put them on pedestals, either. But these are the people we should hold up as examples of the best we can be, not athletes — no matter how compelling a story they might have to tell.