Commentary: Armstrong the martyr changes the conversation by refusing arbitration

Lance Armstrong accepted a lifetime ban Thursday, changing the conversation of his career and whether the public cares about his past

Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. editor Brian Holcombe’s commentary on Lance Armstrong’s refusal to fight the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against him first appeared on August 23, the night Armstrong announced he would accept a lifetime ban.

Lance Armstrong announced Thursday night that he would give up his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and what he called a corrupt system that unfairly prosecutes athletes without honoring due process.

What else could he be expected to do?

Armstrong, who now stands to lose his record seven Tour de France titles, 22 Tour stage wins, and overall victories at the 2003 Critérium du Dauphiné and 2001 Tour de Suisse, chose martyrdom over almost certain conviction by the anti-doping authorities. At 40, he chose to save face, maintain his reputation before millions of fans and those affected by cancer, and trade his sporting accolades for those of a renowned philanthropist.

Armstrong will lose the results and awards upon which he built his Lance Armstrong Foundation and the ubiquitous Livestrong brand, found everywhere from retail stores with Nike and Oakley — longtime Armstrong sponsors — to the Livestrong Survivorship Center for young cancer survivors in Austin, Texas.

He will lose the base upon which he built his empire, but the house of cards will stand, at least as far as those living with the impacts of the disease and the casual sports fan are concerned.

His acceptance of the USADA sanction — a lifetime ban and the stripping of all results earned since 1999 — is not an admission of guilt, but rather a refusal to address the allegations. It is the only way the Texan, once the formidable patron of the peloton, could choose to respond after U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks on Monday dismissed the lawsuit Armstrong brought last month against USADA.

As he would tell it in the press, Armstrong isn’t unlike William Tyndale, a martyr forced to death by a savage oppressor. Travis Tygart and USADA on Thursday essentially erased the decade-long résumé of Armstrong and his historic run through the Tour de France, where he won his final overall title in 2005. The lifetime sanction also kills Armstrong’s comeback to triathlon almost before it began.

But what it doesn’t kill is Armstrong’s reputation in the cancer community and among general sports fans in the United States. Despite questions surrounding its research and treatment budgets, the LAF has become a beacon for millions affected by cancer around the world. And to the casual cycling fan — the viewer more likely to catch Tour de France highlights on SportsCenter than on this website — Armstrong is the most tested athlete in the world and an unfairly persecuted superstar.

Had he continued to fight and accepted arbitration with the American Arbitration Association, it’s likely that alleged misdeeds at the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams would reach the public arena.

The public hearing would almost certainly turn into a who’s-who gathering of U.S. cycling over the last 13 years. The allegations of mid-mountain blood doping stops in the team bus, unmarked motorcycles carrying blood bags and an extensive network of covert doctors and trainers would likely pour into the mainstream news, and while a conviction would not be guaranteed, Armstrong’s public image could very well see irreversible damage.

But that can still happen one of two ways: Armstrong’s accusers continue to go public on an individual basis or U.S. Postal manager Johan Bruyneel goes through with his arbitration hearing, expected to take place this fall.

After seeing the public outcry against men like Frankie Andreu, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, anyone coming forward would understandably be hesitant to erase the doubt surrounding his own career, particularly after the sanction comes down. The 10-plus witnesses USADA claims to have on record detailing Armstrong’s misdeeds will likely stay quiet. For now.

But come Bruyneel’s arbitration, the skeletons will come dancing out of the closet. That is, if the Belgian goes to arbitration — and if Armstrong does not appeal Sparks’ ruling in federal appeals court or USADA’s sanction to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

So, here we are. Did Lance Armstrong dope during his historic career, as USADA and a collection of its witnesses allege? Armstrong, coy as ever, made the only decision tonight that he could. By accepting a lifetime ban, he turned the conversation for many from whether he doped, to whether, in the big picture, it really matters.