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Friday, August 24, 2012

Lance Armstrong and the Art of Crying Uncle

Yesterday, Lance Armstrong brought his legal fight with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to a screeching halt by declining to enter USADA’s arbitration process, a process which he was forced into by losing his federal lawsuit against USADA.  In his lawsuit, Armstrong had alleged, in the main, that USADA lacked jurisdiction, and that its arbitration process was violative of his constitutional rights.  Armstrong could have appealed this decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, but chose not to.  Truth be told, he stood almost no chance on appeal.
USADA had lined up a significant number of witnesses, including many former teammates, to testify against him.  They also alleged they had a significant amount of scientific data to back up their claims of Armstrong’s doping.  USADA claimed that “numerous witnesses provided evidence to USADA based on personal knowledge acquired, either through direct observation of doping activity by Armstrong, or through Armstrong’s admissions of doping to them that Armstrong had used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone during the period from before 1998 through 2005, and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and hGH through 1996.”
USADA believed that it had this case in the bag.  They had former teammates, specifically former teammates without the baggage of Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, teammates most likely not previously linked to doping that an arbitration panel would find credible.  Rumors have abounded that former teammates George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and others had agreed (or more likely, been coerced) to testify against Armstrong.  In exchange for their testimony, these cyclists will most likely receive some penalty (albeit reduced in exchange for the expectation of hanging their former teammate) that will be served in the coming year.  USADA had to penalize them in some way to make them more credible to the arbitration panel.
While Armstrong had never failed a test, USADA had Armstrong’s old blood and urine samples, which USADA had re-examined with newer technology and methods that they believed would scientifically prove that Armstrong doped.  USADA was willing to stake its entire reputation on the Armstrong case.  If Armstrong were to prevail, it would have destroyed the credibility of USADA, and crippled them as an organization going forward.
I believe that Armstrong recognized and respected the strength of USADA’s evidence.  Additionally, given that USADA has a 58-2 record in arbitrations, it is pretty clear that USADA has an upper hand in the process.  Once Armstrong’s lawsuit was bounced, he was facing untenable odds.  Personally, the news that Armstrong would not arbitrate the matter came as a surprise to me.  Having watched this matter closely (albeit from the sidelines), I was convinced that Armstrong would arbitrate, and in the event of defeat, seek further court intervention.  Armstrong struck me as a human being with a singular focus, protecting his Tour titles, and thus his legacy.  I never thought he’d capitulate.
Needless to say, my prediction was incorrect.  Instead, Armstrong has taken an economically (and perhaps personally) practical approach by essentially entering into an Alford plea.  In a criminal case, an Alford plea is one where a defendant pleads guilty, while maintaining his/her innocence.  In so doing, one admits that the prosecuting body has enough evidence to convict.  This is exactly what Armstrong has done here.  Armstrong cried “uncle”, but the cry was calculated and well thought out.  It may keep his legacy alive, tarnished, but alive.
Within hours of Armstrong’s announcement that he would not participate in USADA’s arbitration, one of his main sponsors, Nike, issued a statement in which Nike expressed its continued support for Armstrong.  In addition, American Century, another Armstrong sponsor, has also expressed continued support.  The timing of Nike and American Century’s announcements make it clear that Armstrong consulted and cleared his strategy with them prior to his decision.  Without their support of his decision to withdraw from arbitration, perhaps he takes a different path.
An arbitration hearing would have most likely permanently tainted Armstrong, even if he had prevailed.  Numerous witnesses would have testified that he engaged in systemic doping.  Scientific evidence would have been produced.  Even in victory, there would have been defeat.  The public would never be able to scrub the testimony of Hincapie, Leipheimer, et al from their collective memory.  And most likely, neither would his sponsors.
In consulting with his sponsors (and obtaining their support) before taking this tact, Armstrong most likely has protected something more important that his 7 Tour de France titles – his Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Livestrong brand.  No one, not even USADA (although you never know), can dispute the importance of Armstrong’s charitable work.  His foundation has raised approximately $500 million for cancer research.  His Livestrong products generate almost $17 million a year.  By keeping his sponsors, and thus his foundation alive, Armstrong can slowly wipe some of the tarnish from his cycling legacy, and further cement his charitable legacy.  In the end, it is the more important legacy.