Lance Armstrong, a million questions

Updated: August 27, 2012, 2:32 PM ET
ESPN.com

Lance Armstrong is the greatest bicycle racer who ever lived. The question in front of us is how that came to be. Is it possible to win clean in the dirtiest sport on earth?

If our heroes and our mythic villains are the mirrors in which we find ourselves, Armstrong is the funhouse reflection of our craven genius, our selfish courage, our magnificent weakness. Lance Armstrong is an object lesson, but in what?

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
Julien Behal/PA Wire/AP PhotoLance Armstrong has become one of the most vocal of visible advocates in the fight against cancer.

The loneliest place on earth isn't the North Pole or the summit of Everest or the bottom of the ocean, it's cancer. Cancer is an island: There's you, and across the far horizon there's everyone else. Love him or hate him, for the past decade Lance Armstrong has reached into that frightening isolation and said, "You aren't alone."

To do an absolute good, to spin comfort and hope out of despair, even cynically, even in service of image management or quarterly sales, is still to do an absolute good.

But how many wrongs has it cost? What's the price of doing right? And who pays? A million questions. What are the moral limits of ambition? What are the physical limits of the individual? What are the ethical limits of the institution? What are the limits on a limitless spirit?

Who decides? My colleagues and I are only sports writers, and no closer to the answers. So over the weekend we argued about it a little.

-- Jeff MacGregor

Aug. 24

Lester Munson: It's important, I think, to note some things:

First, Armstrong surrendered after a bad loss before a federal judge in his home town (Austin, Texas) and a rejection by [Sen.] John McCain and others in Congress. Things were not going well and were about to become worse in the USADA hearing.

Second, he has the resources to fight the charges. He easily could have attempted what Roger Clemens did successfully -- pay whatever it takes to fight and to win. Rusty Hardin, the lawyer who won the Clemens case, would have given the USADA all that it could handle.

Third, he can continue to fight with the cycling union at his side. They could challenge the USADA's punishment in the Court for Arbitration in Sport. He would thereby avoid the embarrassing disclosures of a USADA hearing and still preserve some of his legacy in the CAS.

Bonnie Ford was right on ESPN today when she observed that giving in to the USADA was a "low-risk strategy" that avoids the inculpatory evidence and allows him to continue to proclaim his innocence.

Gary Hoenig: One thing that's always bothered me about this discussion is that it takes place on some kind of moral plane, as if the kind of highly motivated narcissists who reach the pinnacle of any sport would not do whatever it takes to be the best at what they do, especially given the monetary rewards. This is not just true of Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens, but of a significant percentage of professional athletes, historically, and no doubt, presently. Somehow we continue to believe in a world where that's not true, and those dumb enough to get caught are excoriated for puncturing the illusion.

This should be viewed as a health issue; that is, athletes who put themselves at extremes to succeed need and will look for help to sustain performance, and they should be assisted in finding safe and appropriate ways to do so, rather than dabble with wildly varying results in an underground marketplace.

I think Lester's perspective on Lance's strategy and how the story may yet evolve is excellent.

Jemele Hill: I think most people understand the extraordinary rewards, even if they don't necessarily like it. What I hate is the grandstanding and moral superiority these athletes use, often when confronted. Lance Armstrong has used his cancer contributions as a shield, so to speak.

Anyway, just once I'd like for an athlete to say, "I did it for the money."

Howard Bryant: And let us not forget the REASON he was able to generate so much money for cancer was because people believed in a story that has unraveled. He inspired people to give precisely because he had convinced the public he had succeeded, the right way, against devastating odds.

His fundraising abilities would have been severely hampered, if not nonexistent, if he were a discredited PED user.

Aug. 25

MacGregor: Couple thoughts.

I was surprised but not surprised by Sally Jenkins' apologia this morning. This is now the standard argument in response to the standard argument: "The system itself is so corrupt as to be untrustworthy." Which is true, but has always been true. If you want to change the rules of cycling or track or baseball as regards performance enhancement, then change the rules. Don't break them, then claim after the fact they're unjust.

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Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThis fan at a race Saturday is one of many who are not accepting the sanction.

Lance -- as did every racer -- signed all the USADA/WADA/UCI authorizations and disclaimers put in front of him before every race, so he knew exactly what was at stake every time he got on the bike. I recall no organized protests on the part of teams or individuals that the doping rules were too complex or unjust or unenforceable. UCI agreed to all of it as well.

I wanted to share these two pieces in case you haven't read them, from Outside, and Bicycling. Sort of seminal late-period Armstrong analysis. Whether damning or not is in how you read them.

Outside: It's Not About The Lab Rats, by Bill Gifford
Bicycling: Lance Armstrong's Endgame, by Bill Strickland

Worth remembering that the $ going to LiveStrong may just be dollars that were bound for other anti-cancer charities, but were rerouted on the strength of the bracelet and Armstrong's celebrity. And those $ aren't going to research science.

As Bonnie and Lester point out, the Armstrong apparatus never does a thing but that it is strategic. I'd agree that bowing out of the fight is a well-considered move on its part to keep his reputation intact. This would indicate to me that USADA's case against him is solid. Especially as it may include new evidence from his "comeback," and what seems an insurmountable volume of credible eyewitness testimony.

So as a matter of storytelling, maybe it's worth remembering that in classic Greek tragedy the hero is always undone by a deformity or failure of the very attribute that made him a hero.

What's left to us and to the fans then is simple math: Has Lance Armstrong done enough good to level the bad?

And this, which no philosopher or theologian or saint has ever answered to the complete satisfaction of history: Can right come from wrong?

Hoenig: These were fascinating pieces, Jeff, the oversharing hagiographical narcissism of the I-loved-him-but-was-betrayed-yet-love-him-still biographer and the the just as narcissistic ego-driven investigator righteously questioning the motives of anyone who denies him gracious acceptance for his quest.

I'm oversimplifying, but don't these define the parameters of our profession right now? And don't they unconsciously mirror the complexity of a man like Armstrong, or for that matter, Bonds or Clemens, who try to manipulate the larger world as they have controlled their mini-worlds through a weird hash of emotional exposure and icy control?

Fascinating, also: the difference between the public stance of the European riders of the past ("I did it, so what, everybody does it") and their subsequent acceptance by the cycling world, and the puritanical call and response over here.

LZ Granderson: I still Livestrong. That notion does not lose value because the messenger is flawed. If we did that, there would be no religion, there would be no government and with a 50 percent divorce rate, why bother with love and marriage?

Lance is tainted by the allegations, but everyone knows PEDs do not beat cancer. PEDs don't fight for research funding.

So no, I don't give him a pass for cheating, no more than I give a politician a pass for being corrupt. But democracy is a concept larger than any one politician and the concept of living strong is bigger than the man who branded it.

Scoop Jackson: I had a personal encounter with Lance a few years ago. He responded directly (phone call) to me after I mentioned his name in a column I'd written about those accused of PED use. He was sanctimonious in defense of his innocence.

MacGregor: I find it fascinating that Lance reached out to Scoop. Because Lance has done it to me, too, and to lots of other writers. He challenges some, I'm sure, but cultivates others he thinks he can turn to his purposes. And who among us isn't flattered by the attention and access and the proximity to celebrity?

All of which brings me back to Ms. Jenkin's impassioned defense of Armstrong against a corrupt and inane sanctioning body. I'm an admirer of her work, certainly, but as the co-author of several of his books, isn't she a for-profit partner in the story of Lance Armstrong against the world? Shouldn't she recuse herself from comment?

Which raises a lot of really interesting questions about the sportswriting ecosystem, and the hothouse of our compromises, alliances and feuds.

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Riccardo S. Savi/Getty ImagesThe USADA news didn't keep Lance Armstrong off the bike or from representing Livestrong this weekend.

Matt Friedrichs: I suspect the vast majority of people think that Livestrong donations support research. That was the assumption of the clerk at RadioShack who asked if I wanted to donate to the organization when I made a purchase in March. He was surprised to hear that they don't when I declined. The Outside piece does a good job dispelling that misunderstanding. The stories about the size of the foundation and the amount of money raised and the the efficiency of dispersal have tiptoed around this. As LZ notes, that's an important cause, regardless of the corruption of one person, so for many people, this is an emotional discussion.

The short-term bump in donations is unsurprising. Is the foundation sustainable in the long run with or without Lance (the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure has been down, of late -- is that a warning or are the politics there different than the personal scandal here)? He went from transcending a secondary (in American eyes) sport to celebrity status. Should we think about him and his next act more in terms of Charlie Sheen than Barry Bonds? He's certainly media-savvy (and in addition to the folks here he's spoken too, he also talked to Jeremy Schaap on Thursday night).

Regarding USADA: We should be questioning its application of power. But like [Mark] Emmert and the NCAA, shouldn't that questioning have started long before a major figure was struck down? Lance is only the latest in a long line of athletes, doctors and coaches who've been sanctioned.

[Miguel] Indurain's statement also was not surprising given the tightknit communities we see within the elite fraternities of pro sports. How many ex-NFL guys (not many) have talked about steroids use in the 1970s only to back off a day or two later when their former teammates respond? Will anybody beside [Tyler] Hamilton and [Floyd] Landis ever talk much publicly, much less write books detailing the dirty side of the sport?

Hoenig: Questions about the USADA were certainly raised some years back by ESPN The Magazine; also, questions about Jeff Novitzky's weird rogue activities.

Also, Shaun Assael and Peter Keating are well aware of how the baseball community, including our writers and commentators, shut down during our investigation of enhancement in 2005.

I think the Sheen comparison is a bit of a reach -- he feels very similar to Bonds, to me.

Jackson: One thing I think we all need to be conscious of: Lance Armstrong's situation is VERY different than that of any baseball player (Clemens, Bonds, Manny, A-Rod, etc.), track star, gymnast, swimmer, weight lifter, etc., because of what Lance "stood for" and because of Livestrong. He became (and is) a symbol that literally transcended the sport he participated in.

And, as Darren [Rovell] and LZ -- I'm sure -- can assess, Livestrong was (and still is) a Nike-driven marketing campaign at the core. Brilliant and noble as it is (and with respect for all the money that has been raised), there has been a huge benefit for both Nike and Lance as far as brand/profile identification are concerned. But it's really been Nike that has been responsible for pushing Livestrong to reach the level it's reached. Not Lance.

Aug. 26

Shaun Assael: The folks at the USADA are doing a victory lap right now. But this case is a mixed bag for them. I've covered the agency since it was created a decade ago and watched it play an important role in the BALCO case by stripping athletes after they got convicted by federal prosecutors.

[+] EnlargeTravis Tygart
Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesTravis Tygart is the chief executive of the USADA.

But this case is fundamentally -- and troublingly -- different: Here, the USADA leapt into action after the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles refused to bring charges.

I got a queasy feeling watching the USADA go after Lance: Not because I think he's innocent but because it feels like double jeopardy. If the case isn't strong enough for the U.S. Justice Department, why is it strong enough for the USADA?

A bunch of reasons were cited in the suit that Armstrong filed to have the case dismissed: It's a star chamber. It bullies Olympic athletes who aren't protected by unions. It has little to no oversight. And Lance was starting to get an audience. On July 12, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) wrote to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, questioning how USADA uses its $9 million annual budget.

But a month later, the federal judge assigned to Armstrong's complaint handed down a ruling that dashed any hopes Lance had of pulling out another come-from-behind win. In sweeping language, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks not only affirmed the USADA's legitimacy, he backed its system of prosecuting athletes before arbitration panels.

Once Sparks got into the weeds, however, he didn't much like what he saw. The decision cites his "many misgivings about USADA's conduct," and "its apparent single minded determination to force Armstrong" into defending himself when cycling's governing body, the UCI, and its American affiliate, USA Cycling, wanted no part of the case.

In other words, Sparks gave a vote of confidence to the USADA's authority, but not its leadership.

The caption of the case was "Lance Armstrong vs. Travis Tygart, in his official capacity as Chief executive Officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency." I've known Travis for years. He's done incalculable good building the agency into a voice for clean sport, and also as a lobbying force to keep the pro leagues honest.

But I think Sparks' ruling -- and the implicit warning it contains for the USADA -- is the real legacy of this case. Not the medals that Tygart took away from Lance Armstrong.

Aug. 27

Johnette Howard: I think Shaun's qualms about the USADA's determination to get Lance Armstrong are important and deserve rigorous examination. But if it turns out that the USADA's worst "sin" is matching Armstrong's decade-long zeal for lying with some indefatigable efforts to prove he's a cheat, then it doesn't outrage me that he's been exposed.

Where I start with PED use is a simple question: Would you want to put that junk in your body? And if not, why would you advocate turning sports into a place where anything is available to use, and anything goes?

This is a health issue first. And the idea that we could condone the creation of some gladiatorial class of juiced-up athletes (who quite often compete for our entertainment pleasure) is far more repellent to me than the USADA refusing to back off because it's sad and soul-wearying to see another hero exploded.

I don't want a sports world in which the bar for entry is having to take PEDs to compete well. To me, that's ethically unconscionable. And pondering that human toll is ground zero in my personal deliberations of the highly complicated question of "What do I think of Lance Armstrong now?" The idea that PED users only affect themselves -- so why not just relax and let them have it at? -- is a canard. Just look at what a travesty the Tour de France turned into.

I'd rather see sports remain in that imperfect, nonabsolute margin where sports are at least made cleaner than they would be without PED testing, if only so those who are disinclined to cheat don't have to.

Next to that, the yelping about the housekeeping of the redacted record books or the cheaters' accrual of ill-gotten fame and money and titles are secondary concerns to me. And the "Legalize Everything" argument (most recently advanced in Forbes) that contends if drug testers can't achieve some absolute victory over cheats, then testing isn't worth doing at all? That drives me crazy. Try applying that all-or-nothing logic to, say, not prosecuting assaults or car thefts since you can't prevent them all. See if it holds water.

I love sports because nearly anything is possible. Not because anything goes.

Assael: To fine-tune my argument for Johnette -- I'm taking issue with more than just "some indefatigable efforts to prove he's a cheat." USADA is unlike any other quasi-judicial agency because it operates under its own law. It's a little like the Chinese government: Everything is done in secret until the last minute, at which point you stand trial as guilty until proven innocent.

Lance is a big boy. He had the money to defend himself. But I'm reminded of the first case that USADA brought when it was first chartered and trying to make a tough-guy name for itself: It banned a 16-year-old girl fencer who took an ADD medication from her sister because she needed to stay up all night studying.

The agency has moved on since then, but it still suffers from Great White Whale syndrome. It's hard to justify a $9 million annual budget without bagging some big fish. But if the means you use to go after the big guys are also the means you use to go after the little ones -- aka non-unionized Olympic athletes who can't afford to put up a fight -- that's a problem.

I'm not suggesting that justice hasn't been done here. I'm saying that Judge Sam Sparks had good reason to issue USADA a warning. We shouldn't let our animosity towards an individual -- or a class of them, in this case drug-fueled cyclists -- color our view of due process. That's happened before in this country, and it never ends well.

Munson: The decision by the Obama administration to end the investigation of Armstrong is part of this picture. It was a highly questionable election-year decision. Like the decision to decline to prosecute Goldman Sachs in equally egregious circumstances, it was a decision to avoid a complicated and difficult prosecution that would irritate a major constituency.

The agents working on the Armstrong investigation were not consulted on the decision not to prosecute Armstrong. They were interviewing a witness as the U.S. Attorney announced the end of their investigation. All who have worked on these cases heard the same thing: The Armstrong case was the strongest of all the cases (Jones, Bonds, Clemens, et al).

It is a tribute to the USADA and to Tygart that they have stayed with the investigation and have pursued Armstrong.

Bryant: Well said, Shaun.

This thread reminds me of our last two Big Documents: the Mitchell report in baseball and the Freeh report with Penn State.

Both documents were useful, but neither was perfect or even close. Travis and I have had our share of battles over the very issues Shaun presents. The USADA needs to be watched as much as the athletes.

There's enough talent on this thread to make strong nuanced statements that hold everyone accountable.

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