Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 5, 2012

Lance Wins Again

A NOTE TO READERS: With this post On Sports and Life begins its third year. Happy anniversary to me, and thanks for your support!

In ancient times, like say 1995, when people read actual printed newspapers and when the three network nightly newscasts were for millions of Americans the principal source of information about what had happened in the world during the day, the hard and fast rule for releasing information that one wanted to go largely unnoticed was to do so on Friday afternoon. That’s when attention was (and is) turned to making weekend plans and away from matters of the larger world. Friday night viewership and Saturday morning readership are the lightest of the week; and of one was lucky then by Sunday some other story would have come along to supplant Friday afternoon’s unwanted press release.

It’s hard to know if that old rule still applies in our digital age, with its 24-hour news cycle and constant bombardment of information sent to our flat screens, laptops, and smart phones from a seemingly uncountable number of sources. I read several newspapers every day, but haven’t chanced staining my fingers with newsprint in more than a month. As for the nightly network news, well Brian, Diane, and Scott sometimes seemed trapped in studios that are lost in a time warp of increasing irrelevance. So perhaps it was merely coincidence that the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles was issued Friday afternoon.

On the other hand, it was the Friday afternoon of Super Bowl weekend, which absolutely guaranteed that even as the release was hitting the wires and certainly by today the attention of most Americans would be on Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And if ever there was a press release that the issuing parties wanted to have pass unnoticed, it was the one announcing that after almost two years of dogged pursuit and a plethora of unscrupulous leaks, federal prosecutors were closing their investigation of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong’s possible use of performance enhancing drugs. An investigation that had considered such serious charges as fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking and conspiracy ended without the issuance of as much as a parking ticket.

The result is especially surprising given the steady stream of public comment during the course of the investigation. Armstrong’s two principal accusers, former teammates Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton made a series of very specific and extraordinary claims about having witnessed Armstrong’s drug use. Landis went so far as to claim that in 2004 Armstrong had his “entire team” stop on a remote road to receive blood transfusions. Apart from the almost outlandish nature of some of their claims, there was the inconvenient fact that both Landis and Hamilton were admitted cheats who came clean only after steadfastly denying their own drug use. Turns out the testimony of two admitted liars may not be all that credible or conclusive after all.

King of a sport in which the use of illegal substances seems especially pervasive, Armstrong has always insisted that he never yielded to the temptation to chemically enhance his riding ability. He famously beat cancer, then beat the best riders in the world through the mountains and speed trials of cycling’s premier race every year from 1999 through 2005. But the enormity of his accomplishment, its sheer improbability, meant that some fans were never going to believe him. Friday’s three sentence press release announcing the end of the federal investigation probably won’t change that; any more than the fact that Armstrong never failed a drug test serves to satisfy the skeptics. Retired from racing and with millions in the bank, Armstrong could probably care less about the doubters. He issued his own three sentence release expressing his gratitude at the decision and promising to continue his work as “an advocate in the fight against cancer without this distraction.” He avoided the likely temptation to echo former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan’s famous “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?” query. Armstrong seems to understand that in our digital age everyone has an opinion, and reputations aren’t quite what they used to be. Besides, whatever the doubters may think, there was Armstrong’s smiling face in a Michelob Ultra commercial on Sunday afternoon during the broadcast of the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open.

But if the whimpering end to the federal investigation of Lance Armstrong doesn’t convince everyone that he never used PEDS, it is surely the latest proof that federal resources are better spent on things other than attempting to “clean up” sports. On the heels of millions spent pursuing Barry Bonds which netted a conviction on one count and a sentence of thirty days house arrest, and millions spent pursuing Roger Clemens to a result as yet unknown thanks to a mistrial necessitated by the prosecution’s amateurish actions, the millions spent pursuing Armstrong are just more millions down the drain. Food and Drug Administration agent Jeff Novitzky may well believe that his relentless pursuit of athletes in various sports over allegations of the use of PEDS is serving some noble public good; but it’s increasingly difficult to see just what that is. Certainly cheats in any sport should be called out, found out, condemned, and punished. But the people doing all that should be the people in charge of the various sports, not federal agents and prosecutors (or, for that matter, grandstanding members of Congress). If they do so imperfectly, or sometimes not at all, over time fans and sportswriters will take notice, and ultimately demand that the cheats be held to account.

To be sure, that’s not a perfect system. The record is clear that in many sports commissioners and other officials have been woefully slow to act, and all too often players’ unions have been too protective of the bad apples among their members. But again, in time the fans and the scribes have demanded action; and in the end we’re talking about sports, about games. The real message of Friday’s pathetic denouement of the Armstrong investigation can be found in an adage that’s been around since the old days when newspapers were real and one never missed the nightly news: let’s not make a federal case out of it.


  1. Good article – hit the point exactly!!

  2. I would recommend reading this commentary from ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson.

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