Sponsors overboard & a guest post on legalized doping, the Armstrong dilemma  //  It's not about the evidence

18 Oct 2012 Posted by

It began with the swoosh, as Nike issued a statement yesterday saying that in the face of “seemingly (emphasis mine) insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade”, they were making the “sad” decision to end their association with him. Then followed a host of his long-time supporters – RadioShack, Anheuser-Busch, Giro, and most recently, Trek bicycles. Armstrong also stepped down as chairman of his LiveStrong foundation, though he remains on its board, and both Nike and Trek have pledged their continued support for the foundation, if not for its founder.

Here’s where the lines get blurred. Drawing a clear distinction between Armstrong and Livestrong requires setting aside the foundations on which Livestrong was built. Livestrong may deserve continued support, of course, and one would not want to undermine the work it has done for awareness and to support those with cancer (but not research, I have to point out), but the corporate backing of Livestrong independent of Armstrong is the sponsorship equivalent of a front. Armstrong’s continued presence on the board and the ‘shared DNA’ between him and Livestrong means that any corporate backer will never fully separate itself from the athlete, whose success has now been shown to everyone to be built on cheating, lying and intimidation.

There’s also the reality that Nike and co had little alternative than to make a move to distance themselves from Armstrong. It was the only move left on the chessboard for them. Sadly, it wasn’t the details and 1000 pages of evidence in the USADA report that prompted yesterday’s procession of abandonments, but the growing resentment and backlash from the public towards, in particular, Nike and Oakley. Telling as it may be, it is unsurprising that companies are more concerned with the opinions held by their consumer markets than with the “trivial” matter of breaking the rules of sport to sell more product, and yesterday was a good illustration of this. It would be oversimplifying it to say that for the likes of Nike, it is a simple question of “Will we sell more product with or without Lance Armstrong?” Brands consider more than just profit and loss, and brand equity has an unquantifiable component to it. However, on both the P&L basis, and the brand equity, some time in the last week, the balance has tilted in favor of the “without”, hence their action. Continuing the association with Armstrong produced a net downside, and so we should not be too quick to commend the sponsors’ actions yesterday.

Then there are the very clear and direct allegations that the sponsors were not merely ignorant, but complicit in what USADA called the “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”. Nike were alleged to contribute to pay-offs to the UCI to bury doping offences (as per Kathy Lemond’s affadavit) and other sponsors are alleged to have spoken openly about doping or harshly condemned those who opposed the Armstrong myth (Trek’s statement included no apology to Lemond). Whether yesterday’s retreat spares them the scrutiny to confirm these allegations (made for example by David Walsh, and we’ve seen that he is worth paying attention to) remains to be seen.

Stepping back to be mindful of the big picture once again, it is interesting to consider how this impacts on the UCI. Once Nike acted, other sponsors were compelled to follow suit – you could hardly be the minnow sponsor remaining steadfast in support while the big ones are jumping ship. Does the UCI decision change in any way as a result? It’s difficult to see that yesterday directly impacts on them, but it does emphasize once again how deep the issue was, and just how dramatically inadequate UCI leadership was during this period.

And on an even larger scale is the question about why Armstrong is so squarely the center of attention when it is becoming clearer and clearer that the entire sport had this problem? That is a question which is addressed in the guest article below. Written by Dr John McGowan, who is the Academic Director of the Department of Applied Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, it tackles the following three questions:

  1. Should we offer amnesty to convicted dopers?
  2. Should doping be legalized?
  3. Why does Lance Armstrong provoke such particular ire?

Dr McGowan emailed me a few weeks ago to request this piece, and given my own time constraints, and my desire to hear views from outside, this seemed an excellent opportunity to host our first “guest post” on the site. It’s something I hope to do much more often in the future, provided articles contribute value and fall within the scope of the site. As some of you may know, I spent two years working in sports sponsorship and business, and the big-picture, strategic thinking where commercial interests intersect with sports performance and science is a particular interest. So the last week has been enthralling, if only to see how reactions have swung, and why.

Dr McGowan’s piece, unedited, touches on some of the themes, including the legalization of doping argument, and how to police sport better in the future.

Ross

Lance Armstrong: It’s not about the doping (Dr John McGowan)

As the time approaches for cycling chiefs to decide if they accept the recent rulings of the US Anti-Doping Agency, I’ve been wondering what to think about Lance Armstrong. Clearly many feel the evidence of rule-breaking, cover-up and intimidation is so overwhelming it’s high time he got his comeuppance. Despite everything though, he still has his partisans. Interestingly however, even some of them don’t care if he was doper. As commentator Gary Imlach commented,”an argument about Lance Armstrong is almost a faith-based matter”.

Amid the storm of claim and counter-claim one piece in particular caught my attention. On a site called Practical Ethics, Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy (both of Oxford University) argue that the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs is such that there need to be important changes in cycling (and perhaps other sports too). However, unlike USADA and the majority of journalistic opinion, their prescription is that, instead of punishing rule-violators and tightening testing, we should be offering amnesty to drug-takers and relaxing the rules on doping.

The Practical Ethics article raises issues of justice, liberty and expectations of public figures: evidence that cycling can be about a lot more than skinny guys pedalling up hills (though I’m personally quite fond of that bit). Specifically their piece poses three interesting questions: should we offer amnesties to those caught doping, and should we have more liberal rules? And why, when so many others are implicated, does Lance Armstrong provoke such particular ire?

Is a doping amnesty a good idea?

This isn’t something only advocated by those sympathetic to doping. The rationale was outlined in a Scientific American article a few years ago (text-only version here) by Michael Shermer. To lower drug use in cycling he suggested a first step would be to,

Grant immunity for all athletes pre-2008… Immunity will enable retired athletes to work with governing bodies and anti-doping agencies for improving the… system.

The benefits of dopers confessing, and telling the authorities how they did it, are envisaged as bolstering a post-amnesty regime of more stringent testing and harsher punishments. While there is evidence that the last two elements are effective, the question of amnesties is more difficult. The motives to conceal doping (financial or retaining your reputation) still likely to be very strong. Unless you were already being investigated, hanging on to your palmarès might not necessarily provide an incentive to fess up.

A second problem is the seriousness with which people take the message, “I know we said we meant it last time but this time we really mean it.” Behavioural psychology would suggest that such intermittent reinforcement of rule breaking (by getting off) might make giving the finger to authority more rather than less tempting. It’s also worth considering where an amnesty would leave those who did try and play within the rules. While it’s probably unrealistic to think that they might be awarded titles stripped from others, it does seem somewhat unfair on them that some people would get the slate wiped clean.For all these reasons many of us might struggle with an amnesty. It’s worth noting that the governing body of cycling have recently come to the same conclusion, though perhaps for different reasons. There is evidence though that sometimes humans let an aversion to unfairness get in the way of bigger gains. It could be a reluctance that’s worth getting over though. It might be in all our interests us all to bail out people in negative equity though it may feel like rewarding those who borrowed irresponsibly. We use amnesties and lenient sentences in criminal trials all the time to produce (hopefully) wider benefits. It may stick in the throat but it’s often worth trying to swallow.

For all these reasons many of us might struggle with an amnesty. It’s worth noting that the governing body of cycling have recently come to the same conclusion, though perhaps for different reasons. There is evidence though that sometimes humans let an aversion to unfairness get in the way of bigger gains. It could be a reluctance that’s worth getting over though. It might be in all our interests us all to bail out people in negative equity though it may feel like rewarding those who borrowed irresponsibly. We use amnesties and lenient sentences in criminal trials all the time to produce (hopefully) wider benefits. It may stick in the throat but it’s often worth trying to swallow.

Of course the discussion so far has been about amnesty as a tool to stop doping. If you would be happy with more liberal rules, amnesties may be less problematic. Why wouldn’t you have an amnesty if you decided doping was OK?

Should doping rules be relaxed?

It’s worth bearing in mind that simply prohibiting something society is concerned about is not always the best way to control its use. For example, the effects of laws prohibiting recreational drugs have often had mixed results, especially when it comes to regulating safe supplies. There is also the issue of personal liberty. In cycling, arguments for the rights of athletes to take what they want in order to perform go back at least to the great Italian champion Fausto Coppi.

Savulescu and Foddy (also see this more detailed paper) use these arguments to call into question several principles underlying the World Anti-Doping Agency Code. In particular they challenge:

  • the idea that anti-doping measures will ever have a significant impact,
  • the view that competition enhanced by pharmacology is not desirable, and
  • the principle that curbing doping means fairer and safer sport.

These areas have been discussed extensively in other postings. In particular, regular readers will have some knowledge of advances in anti-doping paradigms and might conclude that Savulescu and Foddy are overly pessimistic about tackling the issue. So let’s say we can have an impact on doping. Maybe not eliminate it but certainly achieve reductions. Should we try?

On Savulescu and Foddy’s second challenge (to the illegitimacy of doped competition) it’s often pointed out that drugs may affect competitors differently. This might distort contests that many feel should be based primarily on biological potential and training. This issue is perhaps a matter of taste. A vision of the human body as a kind of laboratory-cum-Formula 1 car competing with the aid of the most cutting-edge science (including pharmaceuticals) might appeal to some but repel others. If it does seem a bit WWE for your taste it may be worth thinking why.

If you can accept such a vision of sport, what about fairness and safety? Inequalities related to wealth, diet and demographic factors are legion and it’s naive indeed to suggest that eliminating doping automatically equals fair sport. However, introducing more liberal rules, especially related to a potentially expensive commodity, would seem very likely to skew the playing field even more in favour of the wealthy. Still, there was a time when having a coach was seen as an unfair advantage so I guess it’s possible that I’m just being like the old duffers who were snooty to Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire.

As with fairness, it may be rather simplistic to insist that doping-free sport eliminates risks. Elite sport in particular can reward all sorts of risk-taking, but opening the door to more drug use again seems to potentially worsen the problem. For this author at least it’s this issue of safety that finally leads to a parting of ways with Savulescu and Foddy. I’m not sure I can get comfortable with a sport where a legitimate route to winning is for young athletes to push the limits of pharmaceutical assistance. Should I be comfortable with sport that encourage pushing the limits in other ways? Perhaps not. But that doesn’t mean I want to open another avenue of risk. There is the possibility of improving safety with medical supervision, but a glance at the motley collection of doping medics who populate recent sport memoirs leaves me a little low on confidence that this would help.

The involvement of those dubious doctors, though, highlights a counter-argument and brings us back to the issue of illegality itself compromising safety. As with recreational drugs, if a substance is permitted there may be a greater incentive to improve its safety (rather than at present where the emphasis is on undetectability), and for people of greater integrity to become involved in its supervision. In the end the issue pivots on whether you can argue convincingly enough that, as in the case of something like heroin, prohibition actively contributes to the risks via dodgy suppliers, unsafe drugs or badly controlled administration. If someone could make this case might it change things?

Why Lance Armstrong?

Though they didn’t broach this subject explicitly, Savulescu and Foddy’s arguments did get me thinking about why many seem to have such particularly negative feelings about the man formerly known as winner of seven Tours de France. The New Yorker’s Michael Specter, author of a famous profile in 2002, recently pronounced that now Armstrong “is nothing”. Really? Nothing? While there’s a case for doping being outside the rules, there are clearly far greater wrongs in the world. Though it’s tempting to see dopers as simply cheats who take unfair advantage, the experiences of athletes suggest a far more complicated picture than baddies who did and goodies who resisted. But, as the quote from the estimable Festina Girl suggests, we seem disinclined to cut Armstrong slack even compared to other admitted dopers.

Here are three possible explanations for why we are so down on Lance. One thing they have in common is that none of them suggest the main problem is simply taking performance-enhancing drugs. To coin a phrase: it’s not about the doping.

1. Unlike many others, Armstrong hasn’t admitted fault and asked for forgiveness: a well trodden path for celebrity transgressors. Instead he has doubled down on a career of denials and cast himself as a victim of unfair accusations. This may satisfy the loyalists but seems guaranteed to infuriate everyone else. Of course the potential consequences for him go far beyond annoyance. Potential litigation over sponsorship deals and prize money are looming large. Doping is one thing but clearly lying is quite another. (My addition: as is the possibility of perjury charges considering that some of these lies have happened under oath)

2. Armstrong has behaved very badly towards anyone who has threatened him: a major element of the USADA case . Of course there is no rule that sporting champions have to be nice. Many famously seem not to be. Few however have been as publically contemptuous of their doubters as Armstrong after the 2005 Tour de France (“I’m sorry that you can’t dream big”). Whatever you think of revelations from disgruntled ex-friends, statements like this are asking for schadenfreude.

3. I suspect the main reason for the strength of reaction is to do with what Armstrong has received from cycling: wealth, fame and status far greater than any other cyclist. This makes him vulnerable to the “Tiger Woods Effect”. During Wood’s sex-scandal a few years back the question arose of whether his behaviour would compromise his standing and, crucially, his endorsement contracts. Surely we were beyond holding a man’s private indiscretions against him? The business journalist James Surowieki suggested that actually Woods was in line for some big losses. The reason was the way he was perceived in the public mind: as mentally tough and possessing almost superhuman discipline. It turned out that, when confronted with a line of blonde cuties throwing themselves at his feet, he was actually just like most other guys. Tiger had effectively undermined his own brand.

(My addition: in sponsorship, a fundamental concept is that of ‘transferred attributes’, in that the attributes of the sponsored athlete are meant to be transferred, in the mind of the consumer, to the product. Endorsement relies in part on the (false) perception that it’s the Wilson tennis racket, or Adidas boots, that make Federer or Messi so talented. Puma must be fast because Bolt is. Drinking Red Bull must be cool because Felix Baumgartner skydives from outer space, and so on. When Nike invested in “hope” and “courage” and “hard work” of the Armstrong story, the most damaging thing imaginable would be to introduce “deceit”, “immorality” and “short cuts”. For this reason, their endorsement fails anyway. Remember when Paula Radcliffe failed to finish the 2004 Olympic Marathon? It damaged sponsors because their association with her was on going the distance, and not quitting. Clearly, some transgressions are worse than others, notwithstanding that some are just downright illegal)

So what is (or was) Lance’s public image? Cancer survivor, ferocious competitor and charity campaigner are all well established. I’d go further and suggest the essence of brand Armstrong is actually hero. How does being a hero square up not only with doping, but also with deceit? Throw in the actions of a bully, and the strain between the emerging picture and the brand reaches breaking point. Something has to give and his hero status looks unlikely to withstand such an onslaught. Where this leaves his charitable foundation is something else again.

Another way to look at it though is to consider the possibility that Armstrong is not quite as reprehensible as all that. It could be that we are seeing (as Tyler Hamilton and others have suggested) someone trapped inside a lie that’s too big for easy escape and driven by fear. Fear of failing, of discovery, of loss of the esteem which some still have. How would most people deal with that? How would you? Armstrong’s public stance of studied (or pretend) indifference is quite agonising to watch. It may be that that he is simply an ordinary person, albeit in extraordinary circumstances, with weaknesses and flaws like the rest of us. And this is the heart of his problem: if you’re Lance Armstrong, the journey to just being an ordinary guy is a long, long way down.

Dr John McGowan
Year/Academic Director,
Department of Applied Psychology
Canterbury Christ Church University
Kent
TN3 0TG

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