Friday, August 24, 2012

Lance Armstrong

As ESPN—and every other news organization in America—reports, Lance Armstrong has decided not to fight efforts by the United States Anti-Doping Agency to have Mr. Armstrong branded a cheater for using performance enhancing drugs when he was winning the Tour De France 7 times as well as a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics.

Mr. Armstrong says that although he is innocent, he is stopping his fight because of the toll this has taken on his family and his foundation.  Mr. Armstrong says he is "finished with this nonsense."  Mr. Armstrong also says that the USADA's action against him is "unconstitutional."  I assume Mr. Armstrong raises that point because he lives in Texas and anything a Texan does not like is unconstitutional.  The claims of unconstitutionality ring a little hollow given that United States District Court Judge Sam Sparks rejected Mr. Armstrong's claims that he was being denied due process earlier this week. 

What are we to make of Mr. Armstrong's actions (or inaction)?  Michael Rosenberg at Sports suggests that Mr. Armstrong is banking on the fact that few will change their opinion of Mr. Armstrong as a result of his no longer contesting the charges. In contrast, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency suggests that Mr. Armstrong is in effect admitting that he would lose in front of the USADA. The outcome of dropping the fight might be that Mr. Armstrong loses his titles.  The titles are why anyone knows about Lance Armstrong.  So one can see where keeping the titles might be important enough to fight the USADA.

But are those titles still important?  It's not like people will now immediately forget the existence of Lance Armstrong.  Perhaps donations to his LiveStrong foundation will suffer.  But are people still donating to LiveStrong because of the Tour De France wins?  I do not know but I suspect donations are now being made because people support the various programs the foundation runs.

Litigation is expensive.  Especially here where the litigation involves multiple forums and, I assume, a variety of experts to explain/refute the evidence of doping.  While he is indisputably wealthy, I doubt Mr. Armstrong's wealth is so vast that litigating the USADA's actions would not have taken a sizable chunk out of Mr. Armstrong's net worth.  Mr. Armstrong's cycling career and what I assume are his highest revenue-generating years are over.  Mr. Armstrong may feel that the cost of litigating is not worth the upside of winning.  Especially when it is not entirely clear what winning would mean.  Is there a universe of people that currently think that Mr. Armstrong cheated that would stop thinking he cheated if Mr. Armstrong won the arbitration with the USADA?

There is also the matter of what doping in cycling accomplishes.  After all there is evidence that suggests that all of the premier cyclists in the Tour De France use illegal performance enhance drugs.  After all, Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador were both stripped of their tour wins because of illegal doping.  As one of our law school classmates pointed out on Facebook, if all the cyclists were doping, then Armstrong was still be best cyclist (or doper) in the Tour De France for 7 years.  He also pointed out that Mr. Armstrong's statement is not an emphatic denial that he used performance enhancing drugs; instead Mr. Armstrong says that "I played by the rules that were put in place by the UCI, WADA and USADA when I raced."  I call that the Mark McGwire defense.  This defense has not helped Mr. McGwire get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Finally should we be questioning why the USADA is pursuing a retired cyclist—albeit the most famous cyclist in America? Is there a deterrent effect in pursuing athletes who used performance enhancing drugs after their careers are over?  If not, for how long should the USADA try to punish people who used performance enhancing drugs?  At what point do cases against retired athletes turn the USADA into Javert chasing Jean Valjean?

What do you think Mr. Torvik?  It's not related to Wisconsin sports, but perhaps the questions raised by today's news are worthy of a Conversation™?


  1. Have not seen gritty, research oriented work on whether Lance took drugs to keep his white cells from committing suicide....Is it doping? The guilt of Sandusky is persuasive and at the least obvious that systematic bad judgement took place...however, the cause of unintended consequences have yet to surface...Maybe, just maybe Landis, Contador et al are playing the "BASE" card.

  2. You ask several interesting questions. Here are the answers:

    1) What are we to make of Armstong's decision? I think you are correct that it was a strategic decision. Reports are that ten former teammates were ready to testify against him. He surely saw the handwriting on the wall and calculated that he was going to lose. So the only card he had left to play was, "yeah, you won, but I wasn't trying." That's not a particularly compelling (or sporting!) defense, but it's something. It gives the people who want to believe him something to hang onto; and the people who didn't want to believe never believed he was clean anyhow.

    2) What does doping accomplish? Well, everything that Armstong accomplished is what doping accomplishes. The real question is—what can one accomplish in cycling without doping. It seems clear the answer to that question, at least over the last 20 years, is "nothing."

    3) Why continue to pursue Armstrong? This ties into the last answer—because he accomplished so much through doping. If he'd never won a race, obviously no one would be pursuing him. But for most cyclist the drive to accomplish victory is the goal in and of itself. Thus, to root out doping, the agency must pursue dopers who've accomplished great things. That is not sufficient to root out doping, but it is necessary.

    One can argue that the world if far better off because of Lance Armstrong's doping. His seven Tour de France victories enthralled thousands of Americans (heh heh) and brought great joy to skinny short guys all around the world. More seriously, his celebrity has by most accounts been put to good use through his Livestrong foundation that raises money for cancer research (although if I cannot help suspecting that there's some egomaniacal catch lurking behind the charity). The direct harm he caused seems minuscule. Perhaps his own cancer? Some other cyclists (undoubtedly dopers) were robbed the chance to win the Tour de France? Sure, there were indirect harms in that he participated in and perpetuated a corrupt sport that forced people to put their health at risk in order to compete at the highest levels. But he didn't create that corruption or even contribute more than insignificantly toward it.


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