Lance Armstrong has committed the ultimate transgression in sports: In the midst of the NFL playoffs, the return of NHL hockey, and the weirdest fake girlfriend story since my eighth-grade semi-formal, he has made us talk about cycling and Oprah Winfrey. And for that he must be punished.
Let’s be clear about this: Lance Armstrong is an amazing person with an amazing story who has accomplished amazing things. He is also a bad guy.
Anyone who was being honest with themselves as Lance Armstrong’s career unfolded knew long before his interview with Oprah Winfrey last week that he was doping. (By the time you’ve won your second or fourth or seventh title in the world’s most blatantly corrupt sport, it may be time to be a little suspicious.) Doping by itself is not what makes Lance Armstrong a bad guy. It’s not a great thing to do, but you can see the chain of events that would lead an athlete to make that decision.
What makes him a bad guy is what he did to the people who told the truth about him doping. Armstrong and his cronies used a mafia-style system of intimidation—from threatening text messages and voice mails to overwhelming lawsuits from an incredibly litigious legal team—to ruin the lives of those who came forward.
Among the most prominent of these bullied individuals was Betsy Andreu, wife of former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu (who was fired for refusing to dope). Andreu’s decision to testify under oath that she had overheard Armstrong admit to doping in a hospital cost her husband jobs, cost her family thousands of dollars in legal fees and untold amount of stress, and resulted in threatening phone calls from Armstrong friend Stephanie McIlvain, who said in a now-famous voice mail message, “I hope somebody breaks a baseball bat over your head.” (For lots of details about this story, see this story from the NY Daily News.)
Then there’s Emma O’Reilly, who started out as Armstrong’s masseuse in 1996 and became one of his closest friends and an important employee of the US Postal cycling team. She was complicit in helping the team disguise its massive doping program, but she blew the whistle after cyclist Marco Pantani died from a drug overdose in 2004. Armstrong responded by publicly calling his former confidante—whom he knew to be telling the truth—a “prostitute and an alcoholic” and suing her for £1,000,000. (Lots more on that in this story from The Mirror.) (One sidenote: Every story you see about Emma O’Reilly has this photo of her in it. I wonder if the person who belongs to that foot knows how famous it is now.)
The list of people and organizations who Armstrong threatened should they cross him seems endless, from teammates and fellow cyclists like Greg Lemond, George Hincapie, and Floyd Landis, to news organizations and book publishers. (For a detailed story about many of them, here’s this from the NY Daily News.)
The elephant in the room here is LiveStrong. How could Lance Armstrong be a bad person when he founded this organization that has done so much to fight cancer and support people who have the disease? Among Armstrong’s most vocal supporters is ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, who has been battling cancer off and on since 2007 and just recently announced on Twitter that his cancer has returned and that he is undergoing chemo again. I was listening to Mike & Mike on ESPN Radio last Wednesday when Scott was a guest, and it was hard not to be swayed by his story of what LiveStrong does for the people who are stricken with cancer. (“Cancer tries to kill you, and people are ticked off because he cheated in a bike race. Just weigh that.”)
I don’t think there’s a middle ground here. I don’t think you can say, “Well he did some good stuff and he did some bad stuff, so he’s a complicated guy.” I think LiveStrong’s success became a shield that Armstrong hid behind, bolstering his public image and making him more bold and invulnerable to attack. Before Armstrong’s story started to crumble, he was a wildly successful athlete who had beaten cancer and founded a truly amazing organization that fights a horrible disease. Speaking out against him in that atmosphere must have been incredibly hard.
Dave Barry once wrote, “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” We all got to see Lance Armstrong’s public persona—he was nice to us. But that can’t be reconciled with his considerable dark side, the one that would cause him to protect the lie of his own image through intentional, calculated, vicious attacks on the characters and livelihoods of the people who had the courage to tell the truth.
I hope people continue to donate to LiveStrong and that it can continue to do its important work without Lance Armstrong. But while that organization saves lives, its flawed founder, a person willing to destroy friends for the glorification and protection of his own image, needs to go away.