3Qs: What's next for Lance Armstrong?

January 24, 2013 by Jason Kornwitz
Road racing cyclist Lance Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times after beating testicular cancer in the late 1990s, has reportedly admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in an exclusive interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Credit: Dreamstime

Road racing cyclist Lance Arm­strong, who won the Tour de France a record seven con­sec­u­tive times after beating tes­tic­ular cancer in the late 1990s, has report­edly admitted to using performance-​​enhancing drugs in an exclu­sive inter­view with talk show host Oprah Win­frey. Part one of the two-​​part inter­view will air at 9 p.m. EST Thursday night on the Oprah Win­frey Net­work and will be simul­ta­ne­ously streamed live on Oprah​.com. Northeastern University news office asked a trio of experts to examine Armstrong's apparent deci­sion to come clean some 18 years after doping alle­ga­tions ini­tially surfaced.

According to reports, the Justice Department is likely to join a whistle-blower lawsuit against Armstrong, alleging that the cyclist defrauded the U.S. government by lying about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. What are the legal and financial consequences of his reported confession?

Roger Abrams, the Richardson Pro­fessor of Law in the School of Law, and an authority on sports law:

Lance Arm­strong cer­tainly has need for some good lawyers and some ter­rific public rela­tions pro­fes­sionals. The whistle-​​blower law­suit is just one of the legal chal­lenges Arm­strong will face; he will be a reg­ular vis­itor to our nation's courts over the years to come.

There are a series of legal cases, both pending and fore­see­able, that present sig­nif­i­cant expo­sure to Arm­strong. His "admis­sion against interest"—as lawyers refer to them—will alter the focus of the cases from "Did he do it?" to "What does his admis­sion actu­ally mean?" A great deal depends on what exactly Lance admits to have done. There have been sig­nif­i­cant stake­holders in the Arm­strong industry, including the spon­sors of his cycling teams and insur­ance com­pa­nies that paid off bonuses. They can claim they were defrauded by Lance, but the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, for example, made back triple its invest­ment in the Arm­strong cycling team. In any case, it will take some period of time for all the cards to be played.

After the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a 1,000-page report accusing Armstrong of masterminding a doping scheme, one journalist remarked that the cyclist was "the king—better at doping than he was at pretending to win bicycle races through grit and determination." How do you think the media's perception of Armstrong will change in the aftermath of his reported confession interview with Oprah?

Charles Foun­tain, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of jour­nalism in the Col­lege of Arts, Media, and Design, and an expert in sports media and jour­nalism:

While it is dif­fi­cult to pre­dict where a news story like this is going to go before any his inter­view with Oprah airs, one near cer­tainty is that the Oprah inter­view will be one of the most watched and written-​​about news inter­views in modern memory—think Nixon-​​Frost, absent the his­tor­ical import. In the near term—however the Oprah story plays out—you're likely to see a lot more of the self-​​righteous, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" com­ment from colum­nists and blog­gers that we've been seeing since the USADA report came out last fall. And there'll be ample oppor­tu­nity for such com­ment because the spate of law­suits promised and already filed is going keep Arm­strong in the news for years to come.

Long-​​term, where this story goes depends largely on Arm­strong. If he retreats behinds the gates of his man­sions in Texas and Hawaii, the story won't move much from where it is right now. But his talking now sug­gests that he wants to con­tinue to lead a public life, and his quest for redemp­tion promises to be an even better story than the cancer-​​survivor, cancer-​​fighter, cycling-​​champion* chap­ters of his life were. We love sto­ries of redemption—successful, failed, on going; it won't matter at all from a news per­spec­tive. All will be irre­sistible, par­tic­u­larly with a celebrity of Armstrong's magnitude.

Several sports pundits have speculated that Armstrong's reported confession to doping would compel the World Anti-Doping Agency to lift his lifetime ban from sports, including sanctioned marathons and triathlons, in which he has become known for competing. Why do you think Armstrong has apparently finally come clean?

Dan Lebowitz, the exec­u­tive director of  Sport in Society, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity center:

I believe there are many rea­sons why Lance Arm­strong has report­edly decided to con­fess to using performance-​​enhancing drugs. First, the World Anti-​​doping Agency's inves­ti­ga­tion into his PED use and blood doping is at a crescendo of such great inten­sity that the story can be con­sid­ered ubiq­ui­tous. In many respects, there is nowhere else for Arm­strong to hide. Sec­ondly, with regard to the vig­i­lance of the WADA inves­ti­ga­tion, there is the very likely pos­si­bility of an impending pros­e­cu­tion, per­haps grounded in the belief that Arm­strong not only man­dated and coor­di­nated team-​​wide com­plicity spe­cific to drug use, but also used his inter­na­tional icon status as an intim­i­da­tion and enforce­ment tool. Thirdly, Arm­strong has a reported net-​​worth of $100 mil­lion. Here, again, there is the pending pos­si­bility of mul­tiple law­suits and great eco­nomic exposure.

Given the dark cloud of these three issues, Arm­strong prob­ably felt com­pelled to come clean in the belief that doing so might result in some sort of blanket leniency, in pos­sible legal pro­ceed­ings, both crim­inal and civil, and in terms of the court of public opinion. There is no ques­tion that his legacy has been mon­u­men­tally tar­nished, but his con­fes­sion, par­tic­u­larly through such a celebrity vehicle as an Oprah Win­frey Spe­cial, is clearly his attempt at a first step on the road to redemp­tion. The list of celebri­ties, ath­letes, politi­cians, busi­ness people, and others whom have gone from vic­to­rious to vil­i­fied could fill end­less vol­umes. Still, we remain at heart a for­giving pop­u­lace. This explains the equally long vol­umes of come­back and redemp­tion sto­ries. In all, I'm cer­tain that with this con­fes­sion, Arm­strong hopes to end up in this category.

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