And so it begins, the first steps in the rehabilitation of Lance Armstrong.
He has spoken with Oprah Winfrey, confessing that he used performance-enhancing drugs, and to Livestrong staff members for damage done to his cancer charity. Perhaps reaction will moderate in time, but, for now, people are no longer so eagerly buying what Armstrong is selling.
In short, this now looks like a carefully choreographed, slow-release PR plan – likely managed by Armstrong’s long-time agent Bill Stapleton – to perform a 180-degree turn on all previously held positions: belligerent denial, self-righteous indignation and bullying belittling of accusers. Instead, we have Lance Armstrong the penitent sinner: the weepy, choked-up prodigal son, who is finally coming clean and seeks redemption. As is well-established, an audience with Oprah achieves that almost instantaneously: I can see her right now, reaching out and taking his hand as he shakes with emotion and talks about the pain of living the false life we all made him lead.
And from redemption to rehabilitation. Armstrong will leverage his confession to the maximum to get his lifetime ban reduced, to four years, perhaps less. He’ll be back before we know it: a slightly grizzled and more wrinkled version of himself, glad-handing and fist-bumping on the triathlon circuit, getting back to fundraising for the Livestrong Foundation, making faux-humble speeches for fat fees on the after-dinner circuit, mopping up some handy corporate sponsorships, reconnecting with his Washington power-broker contacts, and – older and wiser – maybe even running for office himself, as was once mooted.
But this only stacks up because, for the second half of his life, Armstrong needs not to be permanently exiled from American public life: to be a viable celebrity brand is all his future. The costs are significant: he will almost certainly have to settle with SCA Promotions, but they will probably take a lot less than the $11m that headlines their suit. The Sunday Times wants to recover $500,000 in damages, plus another $1m in costs; but they’ll take less.
But here’s the thing: Armstrong’s net worth is estimated to exceed $100m. These sums sting, but they don’t really hurt him. And next to his post-rehabilitation earnings potential, they’re chump change.
The only remaining obstacle is Floyd Landis’ “whistleblower suit” under the False Claims Act. Also called a “qui tam” suit, most such civil legal actions fail – unless the US justice department chooses to join as a co-plaintiff, in which case the chances of success multiply dramatically. Landis’ suit alleges that Lance Armstrong, in effect, defrauded US taxpayers who were, via the US Postal Service, the title sponsor of Armstrong’s Tour de France-winning cycling teams from 1999-2003. That sponsorship was worth, reportedly, about $10m per year, making $50m in total.
If Armstrong was choking up and sobbing at his Livestrong Foundation encounter, it was far more likely because he had received word that senior officials in the Justice Department had recommended that the federal government join Landis’ lawsuit, than for any show of true contrition. It must be a rattling prospect, even for Armstrong, that the US government would be coming after him, along with Landis, for potentially tens of millions of dollars – which, all the pre-publicity tells us to expect, Armstrong will confess he took under false pretences when he won by cheating.
Perhaps Armstrong will address his methods and tactics. In listing the issues the he hopes Armstrong talked about with Winfrey, Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel notes that the cyclist leaves a trail of victims in his headstrong determination to save himself:
In the end, Armstrong did far more good for the world – particularly in the cancer wards where inspiration is so desperately needed – than bad. He rides a bicycle. He didn’t kill anyone.
He did, however, try to destroy some people – their finances, their businesses, their reputations, their names. These are the victims of Lance Armstrong, and the only hope is that Winfrey didn’t just let Lance brush aside the truly aggrieved parties or the obvious questions.
Armstrong isn’t necessarily a bad guy for doping. He is a bad guy for the way he used his immense power, fame and fortune to attempt to ruin anyone who dared to speak the truth to his avalanche of lies.
For better or worse, Armstrong believes he’s the master of his destiny and told the Wall Street Journal that he hoped Winfrey “hits me hard.” Clearly, he believes that he has the power to turn this around. The Wall Street Journal reports that, in a meeting last month, he said as much to Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
“You don’t hold the keys to my redemption. There’s one person who holds the keys to my redemption,” he said, pointing at himself, “and that’s me.”