SBJ/October 29-November 4, 2012/Opinion

Path to public redemption open to Armstrong if he wants it

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency recently asserted that legendary cycling champion Lance Armstrong not only had engaged in illegal doping, but also was at the very center of a team doping operation that was the most extensive in the history of professional sports. Last week, the International Cycling Union stripped Armstrong of all seven of his Tour de France titles and demanded that he return all prize money for those victories.

Oakley joined the list of corporate sponsors to abandon its affiliation with Armstrong, a list that already included Nike, Trek Bicycle, 24 Hour Fitness, Anheuser-Busch and Honey Stinger. The scandal has compelled him to step down as chairman of his highly visible cancer charity, The Lance Armstrong Foundation, also known as Livestrong. Further sanctions and legal actions seem likely.

Has the once illustrious Lance Armstrong brand become so tarnished that it can never recover? Is Armstrong, the man synonymous with world-class cycling, destined to be a public pariah? Conventional wisdom and the current avalanche of condemnation coming from all quarters say yes. But I say, never underestimate the power of the public’s love for a story of redemption.

Armstrong speaks to a friendly crowd at a Livestrong event in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 21.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Armstrong can conceivably come back from this public relations catastrophe, but it will take an iron will — something he has always embodied — and a commitment to redefining himself in a real and profound way. Most importantly, he must become the reverse embodiment of his current public image as the disgraced hero.

The best way to divert public outrage is to openly confess your personal failure. Face up to it. People are imperfect, even the most acclaimed heroes of our culture. Most of us understand this. In our hearts, we don’t really want to hate Armstrong, simply because we have accepted his hero status for so long. I know this from personal experience, since I’m a pretty serious cycling enthusiast and triathlete. We want to forgive him, but only if he openly and fully apologizes.
He must express genuine regret … and right away. The sooner he steps into the blizzard of public condemnation, the sooner he can begin his road to redemption. Delaying this essential step will only continue to allow the piling-on of his attackers and resurrect the controversy all over again.

But repentance is only the beginning of his path to restoring his reputation and that of his personal brand.

He must then begin the long and challenging task of redefining his public character. The best way to do this is to position himself as a watchdog against doping and other performance-enhancing drugs common in sports.

I’m reminded of the case of David Millar, the British cyclist who was banned from the sport for two years between 2004 and 2006 after admitting to taking the performance-enhancing drug EPO. He was even arrested in France and completely humiliated by French authorities. Millar not only went on to resurrect his cycling career to a high level, but he also dedicated himself to drawing attention to the negative impact of performance-enhancing drugs on sports. He is now on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s athletes’ commission.

In my opinion, this is the model that Armstrong could pursue to great effect. The USADA report casts him not just as someone who used performance-enhancing drugs, but as the man at the center of designing various means and procedures by which to distribute these substances to his teammates while keeping the whole conspiracy hidden from suspicious authorities, and successfully maintaining this operation for many years. That would make him pre-eminently qualified to cast himself as the world’s leading authority on how to detect and prevent the very same misconduct.

This is probably the most viable path available to him … working to clean up the sport he has both glorified and disgraced. The world of both amateur and professional sports is rife with abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. Over time, and with the consistent discipline for which he is known, Lance Armstrong could eventually become a major force for ridding drugs from athletic competition.

It may be an easy exercise for me to design a program for Armstrong’s comeback, but make no mistake, it’s a huge undertaking — as huge as winning the Tour de France seven times. Even if his dedication to such a path were complete and unequivocal, there’s no assurance he could overcome his current status of disgrace and defeat in the public eye. But it could give him a commendable goal for his own recovery as a man. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a chance for him to protect the reputation and the very survival of Livestrong, his greatest achievement.

Jeff Lotman is the founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based brand-licensing agency Global Icons.

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