Viewpoint: Why America Won’t Forgive Lance Armstrong (for Now)

Some celebrities bounce back from scandal; some never do. Armstrong looks like a longshot

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George Burns / Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images

In this handout photo provided by the Oprah Winfrey Network, Oprah Winfrey speaks with Lance Armstrong during an interview on Jan. 14, 2013 in Austin.

There are popular celebrities, there are unpopular celebrities and then there are the walking dead. You know the walking dead when you see them: they look like Mel Gibson, still striving for drunken charm in an L.A. County mug shot, after getting picked up on a DWI charge that included anti-semitic slurs directed at the police. They look like Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, caught in a racist, career-wrecking rant during a stand-up performance in 2007. They look like John Edwards—whose name alone still makes half the country want to throw crockery while the other half just never, ever wants to have to think about him again. (I’ve written about Edwards before: ‘Why We Love to Loathe John Edwards‘)

There is no end to the number of American celebrities who have found themselves in this netherworld, brought low by crime, sex scandal, Wall Street finagling or just plain nuttiness (we’re looking at you, Charlie Sheen). Now, Lance Armstrong has landed in that same  low place. The seven-time Tour de France winner—stripped of his titles for using performance-enhancing drugs and exposed as having apparently lied and intimidated others into keeping his secrets—is about to do what so many disgraced figures do, which is to seek redemption through the TV confessional. And Armstrong—who has never done anything by halves—is going straight to the high priestess: Oprah.

Armstrong’s goal, of course, is forgiveness, a public absolution that will allow him to resume his career as a competitive athlete—this time in triathlons—and regain some tarnished measure of his lost  good will. Sometimes it works: Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Michael Vick—who ran a dog-fighting ring—managed to bounce back. Eliot Spitzer got a TV gig after frolicking with prostitutes and resigning as governor of New York, and is said to be flirting with a run for public office again. Mark Sanford, who stepped down as South Carolina governor after disappearing to hike the Appalachian Trail in his Argentine mistress’s bed, just announced his candidacy to reclaim the seat he once held in Congress.  Even Richards has earned a bit of sympathy and is easing back into the public eye on TV and in web videos.

(MORE: Why Lance Armstrong Couldn’t Stop Himself (And Still Can’t))

Other times the reclamation act is hopeless: Gibson is finished, especially after his vile and unhinged phone rants, caught on tape by his estranged wife. O.J. could clear rooms even before he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for a low-rent robbery in 2008; now, mercifully, he seems to be out of sight for good. And as for Edwards? Best for him to stay indoors. Armstrong’s prospects of avoiding their fate depend on a lot of things—some within his control, but some utterly outside them.

For starters, there’s the redemptive power of truth-telling—the big card Armstrong hoped to play by arranging the Oprah sessions. That strategy may turn out to be of limited value to him. Patty Briguglio, CEO of MMI Public Relations in Cary, NC, echos a couple generations of crisis management experts when she counsels, “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.” Unfortunately, she says, “Armstrong didn’t do any of those things.”

That matters. Sanford and Spitzer copped to their misdeeds the second they were caught and they still have at least a pulse as a result. And before you say they had no choice in the matter since there was no denying the allegations, consider that both Edwards and the pants-less Anthony Weiner tried to fudge the truth even when it was too late—with Weiner claiming that his Twitter account had been hacked, which was why that way-too-candid picture of him was making the rounds on the web. Armstrong has reportedly told Oprah that he started doping in the mid 1990s, which means he’s been lying for close to 20 years—and excoriating anyone who dared suggest otherwise. This falls a wee bit short of Briguglio’s “tell it fast” standard.

“This is a long-term betrayal,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve seen anyone wearing a bracelet for Livestrong [Armstrong’s cancer charity] lately, but I haven’t.”

With the long-term nature of his lies, Armstrong did something else public figures should never, ever do: he made his supporters feel foolish for standing by him. Say what you will about Clinton, no one was surprised when his White House affair was revealed, and while his “I did not have sex with that woman” lie may have caused some of his fan base to peel away forever, most people just rolled their eyes and reckoned that, yes, he probably did have sex with her. When it turned out they were right, they could applaud themselves for their prescience. The same was true in a darker way of Richard Nixon, whom everyone figured would go on to commit some kind of high crime one day. Armstrong’s stubborn denials in the face of all the doping rumors persuaded a lot of his fans to put aside their misgivings and believe him. Now they find he was duping them all along—something they may never forgive.

(From the Magazine: What Makes Us Moral?)

It also doesn’t help Armstrong that the very talent that made him famous and earned him fans—his cycling—now turns out to have been at least partly artificial. Vick’s dog-fighting crimes didn’t change the fact that he was a terrific quarterback, and after he served his prison sentence he found a place on a new team. Martha Stewart may have done time for insider trading, but her recipes still work. Randy Moss, the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver and serial misbehaver is similarly the real deal on the field, and that helped him a lot. In a story about Moss just today, The New York Times wrote:

He squirted an official with a water bottle and mock-mooned the Green Bay crowd while celebrating a touchdown. He shouted down a team sponsor, loudly disparaged a post-practice meal in front of Minneapolis restaurant owners who catered it, and got into an altercation with a Minneapolis traffic cop. He sulked his way out of Minnesota, Oakland and Tennessee.

“I play when I want to play,” he once said, inspiring predictable condemnation from the punditocracy.

The fact that Moss has survived, the Times argued, is due in no small part “to the fact that his talent was sufficient to buy him multiple chances.”  We will never know if Armstrong ever had the talent, thanks to the performance-enhancing drugs he is finally admitting to using.

(From the Magazine: Armstrong’s Ahab)

Finally, it helps to be likable. Clinton’s rascally charm allowed him to perform all manner of PR jujitsu that a lesser pol couldn’t have begun to pull off. Tiger Woods, similarly, has never been short of a sort of agreeable sweetness—and his genuine-seeming contrition after his marital scandal, not to mention his painful unease during the press conferences that followed, bought him a lot of public sympathy. Armstrong, like Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens—likely dopers all—has exhibited only defiance and disdain over the years. His Oprah mea culpas might simply not be enough after all this time.

But if there is one very powerful asset Armstrong has that the others don’t, it’s Livestrong. The charity does genuine good, and Armstrong, as a cancer survivor, has earned equally genuine admiration for his decision to devote so much of his time to helping other people battle the disease. “He needs to put every bit of energy he has into Livestrong,” says Briguglio. “That’s his legacy. That’s how he’ll be remembered.”

For a man hooked on competition and the do-what-it-takes ethos that tolerates even cheating, public do-goodism may never have the same thrill as crossing a finish line. But bicycle races and endorsement contracts don’t save lives; Livestrong can.  Choose wisely, Lance. We may never love you again, but over time—perhaps a lot of time—we may yet remember how to respect you, even if it’s not for your talent on a bike.

MORE: Can it Get Any Worse For Lance Armstrong?

28 comments
PatrickA.GiannettiJr.
PatrickA.GiannettiJr. like.author.displayName 1 Like

Okay he is just like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa,  Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro just to name a few big sports people..  Of all these guys only Lance and Mark admitted using, Mark only after it was proven he did and lance only after the lies finally betrayed him.  But the others still to this day deny doping to improve their playing.  Hell look Mark is a Batting Coach for a MLB team, Thats like ok I will teach you how to hit when I myself can't do it with out being juiced.  Disgraceful to all the sports worlds, all who dope should be stripped of all records and awards period.  This is a bad example for kids who look up to all athletes. 

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

I think the problem with Lance's Lies is that unlike other celebrities he lied for years. He  denied for years and years and years. Maybe even he believed the Lies. It is one thing to lie but to deny for years and make yourself the victim is sick. He went beyond lying,  i have never seen a person deny for so many years. He is a strange man or has no conscience. 

jimpseattle
jimpseattle

Of course they will forgive him.  This is America and he is a sport figure.  Here, if you're a famous athlete you can get away with drowning puppies and electrocuting adult dogs who didn't do well in your illegal dog-fighting arenas  and still be a hero and a role-model and make millions of dollars.

ChrisvanOostrom
ChrisvanOostrom

i thinkit's not important for americato forgive Lance cycling is not a big sprt in your area its much more iimportant for the old world (E.g: europe where cycling is big )if they can forgive him  

ALVin1
ALVin1

I PLAN ON TUNING IN JUST TO SEE HOW OPRAH IS DOING.

ALVin1
ALVin1

He should not be forgiven at all, his lies may be the worst in history. ABSOLUTELY PATHETIC AND UNACCEPTABLE.

dobe
dobe

People like to kick a celebrity when they're down. I have not followed Armstrong's career closely, so have no comment about the intra-sport competition and personality dynamics, and am not surprised to hear they were ugly and unprofessional. Nonetheless, 2 things stick: 1 - the man won an astonishing 7 Tour de France victories - I don't care whether you're mostly bionic or use rocket fuel for blood, that is an amazing fact, requiring a grueling commitment most of us mere humans lack. 2 - his response to enduring and successfully fighting a life-threatening illness was to drive himself to become a successful athlete (again), and to create Livestrong, supplying it with time, money, prestige, to encourage others to fight (and sometimes win) their battles with cancer. Yeah, it's dump on Lance time now, but I hope time and perspective will one day encourage recognition of the incredible journey this flawed man has pursued.

j45ashton
j45ashton

@dobe What you have to ask yourself is how would he have fared against non-dopers if he had not used drugs.  You'll never know.  It's cheaters vs non-cheaters really.  Try telling the non-cheaters how much he ought to be admired.

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

@dobe He took lying to another level. He lied with a straight face for years without the slightest conscience. Only a sick man could lie for 7 years and deny every blood test. He lied in Europe he lied in the USA. If this is your kind of Hero, you can have him but he is a sick man with not conscience. They call  people like him sociopath my friend. 

 He won no race, his drugs won the race. 

If you want real sports heroes you have to look to people who played before 1980. Reggie Jackson, Micky Mantle, Joe Namath, Ali, ...etc  

George286
George286 like.author.displayName 1 Like

America won't forgive him because his transgression was not one of weakness like those other celebrities, it was of an unrelenting sociopath building an empire that got caught (which usually happens after to these types).  Like Bernie Madoff, he damaged people's careers, businesses, menaced witnesses and played the rest of us, intentionally, just concerned with winning an empire.  Forgiving is not forgetting, forgiving is just a trick we use to stop resenting.  This guy did not win anything, he just stole things.  Get lost Lance, we wish to stop thinking about you, that is our forgiveness.

ShoshoneCreek
ShoshoneCreek

Lance needs to declare himself a Republican running for the US Senate and that the Fellowship in DC has granted his wish of begging for forgiveness.  This is how the Republicans regain their family values mojo while actually not changing a thing....it's all about the dog and pony show!

Lance just needs to join the Fellowship (The Family)....and he'll sale out of the public jail house faster than you can say free market cappitalism!

timetraveller
timetraveller

"Martha Stewart may have done time for insider trading, but her recipes still work."

Martha Stewart did not do time for insider trading. It was for lying to investigators. One more reason to never talk to cops without a lawyer present.

easyweblinx
easyweblinx

The industry created an icon untill the point of no return. But, we all knew it from the beginning.


easysportslinx.com

KentR
KentR

It will take time  but  He like I am not a crook Nixon  will find some forgiveness in some  but not all   he will be known for both good and evil in his life and aspects..   Since every one tents to judge  and with time comes faded memory so  forgotten   or out of  recent memory  a full true whole story will show up  and  life goes on  for the rest of the world.  

Though not truthfully  in recent  memory  odds are John Wilkes Booth  tho remembered for one nights actions may have had many friends that had no idea  what was in his mind  or his absolute values  as just another guy they know..  we know what he did  and what we believe he caused   for some good for others absolute evil  but were far from the era of his life  to know beyond stories of  him which may or may not be accurate.

The same is true for Mr Armstrong  i dont know him   i know reported story's of him   and  what it appeared he  did  the court of public opinion  is rough., If you  could only ask the Monster that Dr Frankenstein  supposedly created in fictional realms youd see part of the answer  in that reflection  of the world..

j45ashton
j45ashton

Love the way Kluger writes.  I'm with Eliz210 100%.  LA will never recover for all the reasons she says.  It's particularly egregious that Armstrong aggressively attacked non-doping fellow athletes who blew the whistle and tried to change the "but everybody's doing it" environment.

Elizabeth210
Elizabeth210 like.author.displayName 1 Like

This was a systematic fraud that garnered millions for LA as well as world wide fame.  It included intimidation and outright threats to fellow

athletes, reporters etc.  If this was a one time mistake, he could be "forgiven" and move on.  In this case, I hope he is indicted, found guilty,

loses all his ill gained money, and is shunned by all athletes and athletic companies.

MrObvious
MrObvious like.author.displayName 1 Like

It's hard to forgive a guy that made us go to bat for him while he was strongarming others to be silent.

It's a little bit to late to cry a river and ask us to swim in it.

BillSWC
BillSWC like.author.displayName 1 Like

You, along with so many people reporting on this, keep failing to point out the worse part of this story. Armstrong used intimidation tactics to keep people silent and ruined many people's livelihood, careers, and reputations. He has made life hell for the Andreus for the past 10 years or so. He is a psychopath with a much larger trail of life destruction than the other people you mention.

Piacevole
Piacevole

The problem I have with Mr. Armstrong is that he doped, he lied about it at great volume, and he continued to deny it even when he was caught dead-to-rights, threatening to sue on the subject.  Furher, the testicular cancer might well have been brought about by the very drugs he was taking and denying: one can certainly fool others, but not one's own system.

His medals and "victories" might well persuade younger, upcoming athletes to use steroids: as we all know, they are available, and have been for years.  The damage he has done is precisely that: using drugs which are available, but which ought not to be used.  They shouldn't be used partly because they change performance parameters, and, ultimately, do a lot of damage to the organism involved, and others: we've all heard of " 'roid rage."  The lack of nominations to the baseball Hall of Fame this year makes a statement: perform on your own natural gifts, or don't expect to be lauded for your victories.  Take your 'roids and go home.

NamecNassianer
NamecNassianer like.author.displayName 1 Like

Lance Armstrong is still highly-respected by many for continuing on with his renowned cycling career after surviving testicular, lung and brain cancer.

If the definition of cheating is having access to advantages that other do not, how does that apply to Lance?  Did others not have access to the same things?  By this definition, tall basketball players have an unfair (albeit a genetic) advantage over shorter players.

Perhaps the right thing to do is throw out the double standard of prohibiting athletic enhancements and let all do as they choose. If other choose not to participate, fine. No one forces anyone to play the game.


AjLenkowski
AjLenkowski

The definition of cheating is breaking the rules.  Lance, and many others to be sure, knowingly broke the rules.  But not everyone did.  Many riders rode clean because they chose to.  And many riders rode clean because they did not have the access that Lance bought and paid for.

But what is bothering so many people is the way he attacked and ruined many people's lives because they dared to speak about Lance and doping/cheating.

TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever like.author.displayName 1 Like

He's okay.

What's the big deal.

They all cheat, they all lie, they all dope.  Next case ... 

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aurorafisher64

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