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The Bigger they are, the Harder they Fall: The Lance Armstrong Story

What do Lance Armstrong and Michael Milken have in Common?

Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and now Lance Armstrong are superstars who reached the pinnacle of their sport only to be taken down by allegations of using performance-enhancing drugs. We know there are dozens like them yet to be exposed. We know it is wrong on many levels not the least of which is it compromises the level playing field that should exist in sports. The real questions are: Why did they do it? And, in the case of Armstrong: How should he be viewed in the public eye given the fact he has done so much good through his cancer-fighting foundation, Livestrong, and he, himself, successfully recovered from advanced testicular cancer that was first diagnosed in 1996?

For the record, neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens has been convicted of using the drugs; Clemens was found not guilty of perjury; and Bonds guilty of obstructing justice. As for Armstrong, the Tour de France has indicated it would vacate all of his victories from 1999-2005 unless the decision is appealed by the International Cycling Union. 

Even Nike has had enough of Lance Armstrong. On October 17 the company announced its split with the cyclist even though it stood by Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant after their sexual escapades. Nike’s statement explaining its decision was: "Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him.” Over the years, Nike paid Armstrong about $40 million for his endorsement.

With regard to Livestrong, Armstrong announced that he had stepped down as chairman of his cancer-fighting foundation so that the organization can focus on its mission instead of doping allegations against its founder.

Nike wasn't the only company to part ways with Armstrong. Trek, the company that supplied the bikes that he rode to seven Tour de France victories, severed ties as well. "Trek is disappointed by the findings and conclusions in the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report regarding Lance Armstrong," the company said in a statement. "Given the determinations of the report, Trek is terminating our long-term relationship with Lance Armstrong.”

Armstrong strongly denies doping, but did not fight the USADA accusations through arbitration, saying he thinks the process is unfair.

Cheating is wrong on any level. It is dishonest; violates the public trust; and compromises the integrity of the person and the sport. There is no excuse for such behavior, only a rationalization such as everyone does it or a moral blindness in the sense that these athletes believe they are above the law.

Armstrong's inspiring story is a compelling one. He not only recovered from cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain but then won the world's best-known bike race. He helped the Livestrong foundation grow from a small operation in Texas into one of the most popular charities in the country. In 2004, the foundation introduced the yellow "Livestrong" bracelets, selling more than 80 million and creating a global symbol for cancer awareness and survivorship.

Armstrong’s story reminds me of another person who fell from grace – financier Michael Milken. Milken played a key role in the development of high-yield bonds, called “junk bonds,” during the go-go years of the 1980s. He earned the moniker of “Junk Bond King.” These bonds financed the merger boom during those years that coincided with the start of a telecommunications boom and an explosion of Internet users.

Milken was indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 as the result of an insider trading investigation. He reached a plea bargain with SEC to six securities and reporting violations but was never convicted of racketeering or insider trading. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and permanently barred from the securities industry. Milken’s sentence was influenced by testimony against him by Ivan Boesky, an arbitrager who had financed corporate takeovers and amassed personal wealth of more than $200 million. Boesky provided evidence against Milken to reduce his own sentence in an SEC case and received a meager sentence of 3.5 years and a fine of $100 million.

Milken has been called a philanthropist because since the 1980s he has funded research into cancer and other life-threatening diseases through the Milken Family Foundation and Milken Institute. Milken himself beat prostate cancer. (Where did he get the money to finance the Foundation, I wonder?).

How should we view Lance Armstrong in light of the doping charges? As with most wrongdoings, it’s the cover-up that gets you in the most trouble and not the crime (i.e. Nixon and Watergate). Does that mean if Armstrong had come out right away and admitted his failing and was remorseful the public would have accepted it and let it go at that? I believe the answer is “yes.” I’m not saying I would agree with this response to my hypothetical. Unethical (and illegal) behavior is wrong and should be punished regardless of the reaction of the offending party. However, forgiveness is a virtue that should influence our view of someone who sincerely admits a mistake and asks for it.

What might have Armstrong said to restore his image? Here is my take: “I started taking performance-enhancing drugs after my battle with cancer. I continued to take long after because it helped provide the strength to continue to compete in cycling. I was wrong. My actions were unfair to my competitors and the sport. I admit my mistakes and accept the punishment.”

Had Armstrong reacted this way he would have been viewed differently in the public eye. Yes, he still would have been stripped of his Tour de France titles. However, and most important, he would have retained his integrity and honor as a person. The moral of Armstrong’s story is that in the end all we have in life is our reputation for honesty and trustworthiness. It takes a long time to build a reputation of trust but not very long to tear it down.

Blog by posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 22, 2012