Commentary

What to make of Lance Armstrong

His decision to stop fighting, after helping millions to fight, leaves many questions

Updated: August 24, 2012, 1:06 AM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

Sports fans have surely been tested in recent years.

We've been shown that Tiger Woods wasn't the family man he was portrayed to be.

That, for all the good he did, Joe Paterno made some incredible mistakes.

And perhaps, as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency believes, there is enough evidence to strip Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour De France titles, that the man whose contributions to human life went deeper than any athlete in history, didn't reach his fame in a fair manner.

We should be used to learning how to feel, how to judge our athletic role models when they let us down. But it's not easy.

And judging Lance Armstrong is more complex than any athlete we've ever had to judge.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty ImagesLance Armstrong's accomplishments, on and off his bike, have become more difficult to put into context.

Sure, we came to know him as the guy who nobody could beat on a bicycle, but his legacy has to be the lives he improved, the lives he saved.

We often use statistics to ask ourselves if a maligned athlete, particularly one who was found to have used performance-enhancing drugs, should deserve the praise we give them. But judging Lance Armstrong by any other statistic than that he has raised almost $500 million for the fight against cancer in the past 15 years just seems small. And even that doesn't strike at the heart of what Armstrong did.

While so many athletes love to show up at hospitals when the news cameras come along, Armstrong gave some pretty incredible one-on-one time to so many sick people. When he couldn't do it in person, he recorded a video and sent it in an email, even if he heard that someone had hours to live.

By giving up his fight Sunday night, by deciding he would no longer fight the allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs, Armstrong isn't technically admitting guilt. But he is letting the USADA do what it believes it has the power to do, based on its belief that he cheated.

His biggest sponsor, Nike, says it will continue to stick by him and his foundation. But things will slowly change.

One has to think that the Livestrong line, which began as an offshoot from the incredible success of the yellow rubber bands worn around millions of people's wrists, will decrease in number. As will the donations to Armstrong's foundation, especially from the people who were inspired to donate by the miracle of his story. It's not as good a story, they'll say.

But Armstrong won't lose the people who he told to live strong, who he inspired to fight on when they had lost their hair, when chemo had ravaged their bodies just like it had invaded his. He won't lose the people who, through his story, believed and, in the end, cheated death.

With the prevalence of media and the way we consume it, we as human beings are challenged more than ever before to digest information and give our take. We are challenged by friends at dinner and by co-workers at the office. What do we think about what happened with this person?

And yet, judging Lance Armstrong is as complex an exercise as we've ever seen.

How does the good outweigh the bad? Does it make up for it? Does it lessen his sports or philanthropic accomplishments?

In a world of now now now, of 140 characters, that can't be answered in one conversation.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter