Lance Armstrong’s slow and steady fall from grace turned into a complete freefall on Wednesday.
In the span of about 30 minutes, he lost both the chairmanship position at Livestrong and his endorsement deal with Nike. The former happened by choice, the latter was decided for him. Then, throughout the rest of the day, an assortment of other partners -- beginning with RadioShack and ending with Trek Bicycles -- announced that they would be cutting ties with this one-time American hero.
Could things possibly get any worse for Armstrong? Apparently, yes.
According to an interesting article by the New York Daily News (via Larry Brown Sports), at least part of the reason Armstrong hadn’t been exposed prior to now is because Nike allegedly bribed former UCI president Hein Verbruggen to cover up a 1999 drug test for him. Per that report:
One of those critics is Kathy LeMond, the wife of American cyclist Greg LeMond, who testified under oath during a 2006 deposition that Nike paid former UCI president Hein Verbruggen $500,000 to cover up a positive drug test…During a 2006 deposition related to the suit, Kathy LeMond testified that Julian Devries, a mechanic for Armstrong's team who was once close to her husband, had told her and others that Nike and Thom Weisel, a Bay Area banker who sponsored Armstrong's team, had wired $500,000 to a Swiss bank account that belonged to Verbruggen… The money, Kathy Lemond said Devries told her and several others, was sent to cover up a 1999 positive drug test for corticosteroids, which Armstrong had used to treat saddle sores. Devries, Kathy Lemond said during the deposition, had been disgusted by the way performance-enhancing drugs had polluted cycling
As you would expect, Nike vehemently denied the notion that they were a part of any cover-up whatsoever.
"Nike vehemently denies that it paid former UCI president Hein Verbruggen $500,000 to cover up a positive drug test," the company said in a statement. "Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs."
That statement came out on Tuesday of this week. Nike announced that they were terminating their deal with Armstrong one day later.
"Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him," the company said on Wednesday (via ESPN). "Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner. Nike plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer."
Of course Nike doesn’t condone it. Sure, they condoned it just a few days earlier, but that was totally different. How? Ah…
Look, an entire novel can be written about how badly Nike has botched this whole thing. Did they really bribe someone to protect Armstrong 13 years ago? It’s impossible to say. Frankly, it seems like a really huge risk for a company that has so much to lose. Nike is bigger than any one athlete – even one who was as huge as Armstrong in his heyday. And the unverifiable word of a banker who told a mechanic who told the wife of a bicyclist isn’t exactly something that deserves a whole lot of credence by itself.
But this whole mess speaks to a broader problem for Nike. People’s perception of the company right now is that they severed ties with Armstrong not because they were truly morally outraged by the lie that he purportedly built his whole legacy on, but rather because they had milked all of the financial benefits they could out of him. And then, once they were done, they just tossed him aside.
Michael Vick killed dogs? No problem – he can still sell gear. Tiger Woods is a serial cheater? No problem – he can still sell gear. Kobe Bryant was once accused of rape? No problem – he can still sell gear. Armstrong perhaps (read: probably) misled a legion of cancer patients who were inspired by him regarding whether or not he abused performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in a sport where PED usage runs rampant? Problem. Why? Because he can’t sell gear anymore.
This has been a brutal 24 hours for Armstrong, no doubt about it. But Nike’s public image hasn’t fared much better.