From the Chicago Tribune earlier this week:
“To spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship [of the Livestrong Foundation],” Armstrong said in a statement on Wednesday. He will continue to serve on the board.
At around the same time that the foundation announced Armstrong’s resignation, Nike posted a statement to its website saying the athletic apparel maker would still back the charity but could no longer sponsor the man behind it.
“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,” the company said.”
Nearly a decade of doping investigations, which many non-cycling fans assumed was a witchunt lead against an American in a European-dominated sport, have finally turned. Armstrong has not admitted his guilt, but his Nike ouster and separation from Livestrong are implications that he has, and it seems that regardless of his protests, he will be marked down as a cheater in the annals of sports history going forward.
But a cheater for a cause! Armstrong’s cycling success after his bout with testicular cancer has given many people hope, which is why the Livestrong wristbands were so popular in the first place. I’ve read and heard plenty this week about what Armstrong should mean to us now, assuming he is guilty as the USADA reports. Cancer kills at least 7 million people per year globally, 400,000 of which are Americans, according to the 2008 census. So any efforts such as Armstrong’s are needed. His story both humanized cancer by showing even elite athletes are susceptible, and brought attention to the need for research. Do the ends justify the means? Or does Armstrong’s doping harm the very worthy cause? (the Tribune noted that Livestong has actually seen an increase in contributions since the Armstrong news broke.) Who is Armstrong: a cheater or a saint?
I find the hand-wringing and moralizing about Armstrong’s plight most interesting in light of another figure who is facing his athletic mortality this week, Ray Lewis. By any measure, Lewis is an historically good player, who has been selected for 12 Pro Bowls at his position and has been named Defensive Player of the Year twice. As his skills have eroded, the appreciation for his leadership and motivational skills has increased. Whether Lewis returns next season after his triceps injury or not, his place in NFL history is secure.
But we can’t forget that in 2000 Lewis pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder case. This was not merely legal wrangling: Lewis was present when two of his companions killed another man in a bar in Fulton County, Georgia. Ultimately, neither Lewis nor his friends were convicted of murder. But Lewis’s NFL obituary won’t go three lines before this incident is mentioned, no matter how much of his time he volunteers with youth groups or how many charming commercials he does. Personally I think Lewis, when his career is complete, will transition to a TV analyist role. His charisma and knowledge of the game are second to none.
So who is Lewis: a hard-nosed leader of one of the most feared NFL defenses in history, or a criminal? It seems strange to me, gentle readers, that he has to be either one or the other. One does not negate the other, as much as we’d like it to. Every athlete is human first and foremost, and while some are truly exceptional human beings (read this story on David Robinson $9 million contribution to a San Antonio-area school), most are simply human. Meaning they make mistakes. And because our deified athletes are most often young men with a ridiculous amount of money, their mistakes are magnified well beyond their immediate impact.
Perhaps we should think twice before placing these humans on a pedestal. It leaves us feeling lost when someone who does something we assume should make him unassailable (like Armstrong now) puts him in a category with the criminals (like Lewis ten years ago.) The truth is that both Lance and Ray are both great, and they’ve both made great mistakes. So should they be role models? Charles Barkley said it best:
Mike Lipetzky is immersed in this sporting life. He’s a regular contributor at NoCoastBias. Find him on Facebook and Twitter