Commentary

Lance still worth revering

Updated: September 4, 2012, 10:29 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Lance Armstrong Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesSay what you will about Lance Armstrong's biking accomplishments. But his role in the fight against cancer is undeniably great.

I'm wearing something yellow Friday for Lance Armstrong. Not because I think he's innocent. He just gave up his chance to prove his innocence, so I suppose he isn't.

But I don't care. I'm wearing yellow just to say thank you. If he cheated in a sport where cheating is as common as eating, then I'm wearing yellow to thank him for everything he's done since he cheated.

I'm wearing something yellow for the way he changed cancer in this country from dread to hope. I'm wearing something yellow for everybody who got their chilling cancer diagnosis and said to themselves, "Lance did it. Why can't I?"

Want to join me?

Dig out your old Livestrong bracelet. Wear a yellow scarf, yellow socks, watch "Old Yeller." Just make yellow a part of your Friday.

Yes, the United States Anti-Doping Agency -- riding roughshod on slippery rules and sketchy standards -- declared Armstrong guilty of doping. Then last Friday, Armstrong stopped fighting them. "Enough is enough," he wrote. It might as well have been a firing squad. It was that one-sided.

When a man who never quits finally quits, you don't know how to feel.

"It was a somber moment," says his agent, Bill Stapleton. "He looked at his options and it was like, 'Which one is the best worst?' You can't go on with these kind of legal bills, with people tearing apart your work. It was just too hard on his family."

Sure, Armstrong could go to arbitration. But he's already spent over $5 million on his defense, according to friends. And would you go to arbitration, knowing that USADA sets up the rules of arbitration, sets up the rules of what can be admitted into arbitration and approves the arbitrators? Would you go, knowing it could take two or three more years? Knowing that even if you won, USADA could appeal?

So, yes, USADA has stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles even though nobody's still quite sure they can strip him. If Switzerland investigates Roger Federer and finds he doped, can it take away his U.S. Open trophies?

It's all ugly. The whole sport is ugly. If the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body, upholds the penalty, do you realize that 14 of the last 17 TdF winners would be expunged? And what will they do with them? In five of Armstrong's seven wins, the second-place finishers were implicated in doping scandals of their own. One year -- 2003 -- you have to fish down to fifth place to find somebody clean.

Essentially, this is cycling: If you can get on your bike and make it around your local reservoir without doping, you might have just won next year's Tour de France.

So Lance Armstrong may have cheated, just like everybody else. Or maybe he gave up the fight because the whole thing was more crooked than San Francisco's Lombard Street. After all, USADA convicted him on hearsay, not proof. They don't have a single failed sample to hang their hats on -- Armstrong has never failed one -- so they took the word of riders like self-admitted liar Floyd Landis. The whole thing, all their evidence, is based on testimony, not tests.

Maybe these riders are lying, maybe they're not. I don't care. I'm wearing yellow Friday because I want Armstrong to know what he meant to me, my family and the dozens of people I know who took Armstrong with them into those chemotherapy rooms and radiation labs and the darkest corners of their fears.

When my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, the first book she read was his "It's Not About the Bike." She was inspired. She lives. The man is a hope machine.

I'm wearing something yellow Friday because I know he never cheated the cancer patients who believe in him. I've sat with him as he spends his daily hour answering the emails of perfect strangers -- all suddenly cancer-stricken and panicked.

I've watched him pushing the Texas legislature, poking the California legislature, prodding the U.S. Congress to free up money for research. I know what he stands for -- $475 million raised to educate cancer patients so far -- and so do millions of others. That's why, the day after his decision to quit trying to prove his innocence, Livestrong took in 770 percent of what it had the day before. That's why every company he endorses has stuck with him.

Fine. If he cheated, wipe him out of the record book. Make him pay back the first-place money he won all those years. He gave it all away to his teammates anyway. There's some irony for you. Plenty of those guys -- George Hincapie, Landis, Tyler Hamilton -- were suspected of, or admitted, using banned substance too.

But wear something yellow Friday just to return the favor. Wear something yellow to tell Lance Armstrong that they might be able to ban him for life, but they can't ban him from life. Wear it to tell him to keep going, to keep fighting for cancer-research legislation, to keep showing people through his Livestrong foundation how to fight through the red tape and get to the treatment that can cure them.

In five years, nobody will want to check to see if Lance Armstrong's name is still attached to those trophies. But in five years, they'll still want him leading any peloton that's trying to chase down cancer.

In an email reply to me Monday, Armstrong said, "Sorry, but I'm done talking about this, forever. I'm focused on what's ahead of me -- not behind. Regardless of the injustice that has been done. Onward and upward."

Friday, it's our turn to talk.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com