A Study in Ethics: Lance Armstrong and Why You Shouldn’t Burn Your Bracelet.

If you haven’t heard about the recent USADA release of new evidence against Lance Armstrong, former star of cycling and Chairman for his own LIVESTRONG Cancer Foundation, then let me summarise it: it’s pretty damning. After reviewing this and other evidence, I have little doubt that Lance Armstrong systematically and deliberately engaged in the procurement, distribution, promotion and consumption of banned substances while he was engaged in an activity that explicitly prohibited this. I also have very little doubt that he engaged in practices, such as blood transfusion, intimidation and the manipulation of colleagues and competitors, again in a way that contravened the rules of his sport and in a way that led the sport into disrepute. The USADA report contains a lot of the missing detail, witness reports, accounts and evidence that, up until now, has allowed Lance Armstrong to maintain that delightful state of grace that is plausible deniability. He has now been banned for life, although he can appeal, his sponsors are leaving him and he has stepped down as the Chairman of his charity.

I plan to use Armstrong in my discussions of ethics over the next year for a number of reasons and this is an early musing, so it’ll be raw and I welcome discussion. Here are my initial reasons and thoughts:

  1. It’s general knowledge and everyone knows enough about this case to have formed an opinion. Many of the other case studies I use refer to the past or situations that are not as widely distributed.
  2. It’s a scenario that (either way) is easy to believe and grounded in the experience of my students.
  3. Lance Armstrong appears to have been making decisions that impacted his team, his competitors, his entire sport. His area of influence is large.
  4. There is an associated entity that is heavily linked with Lance’s personal profile, the LIVESTRONG Cancer Charity.

Points 1 and 2 allows me to talk about Lance Armstrong and have everyone say “Oh, yeah!” as opposed to other classic discussions such as Tuskegee, Monster Study, Zimbardo, etc, where I first have to explain the situation, then the scenario and they try to make people believe that this could happen! Believing that a professional sports person may have taken drugs is, in many ways, far easier to get across than complicated stories of making children stutter. Point 3 allows me to get away from thee “So what if someone decides to do X to themselves?” argument – which is a red herring anyway in a competitive situation based (even in theory) on a level playing field. Rationalisations of the actions taken by an individual do not apply when they are imposed on another group, so many of the “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” arguments that students effectively bring up in discussing moral and ethical behaviour will not stand up against the large body of evidence that Armstrong intimidated other riders, forced their silence, and required team members to follow the same regime. I expect that we’ll still have to have the “So what if everyone dopes” argument in terms of “are people choosing?” and “what are the ethical implications if generalised?” approaches.

But it is this last theme that I really wish to explore. I read a Gawker article telling everyone to rip off their yellow wristbands and that I strongly disagree with. Lance Armstrong is, most likely, a systematic cheat who has been, and still is, lying about his ongoing cheating in order to continue as many of his activities as possible, as well as maintaining some sense of fan base. The time where he could have apologised for his actions, stood up and taken a stand, is pretty much over. Sponsors who have stood by other athletes at difficult times have left him, because the evidence is so overwhelming.

But to say that this has anything to do with LIVESTRONG is an excellent example of the Genetic Fallacy – that is, because something came from Lance Armstrong, it is now somehow automatically bad. Would I drink from a Coke he gave me? Probably not. Do I still wish his large and influential cancer charity all the success in the world? Yes, of course. LIVESTRONG gave out roughly $30,000,000 last year across its programs and that’s a good thing.

It’s a terrible shame that, for so many years, Armstrong’s work with the charity was, more than slightly cynically, used to say what a good person he was despite the allegations. (There’s a great Onion piece from a couple of years ago that now seems bizarrely prescient). Much as LIVESTRONG is not guaranteed to be bad because Armstrong is a doper, running and setting up LIVESTRONG doesn’t absolve Armstrong from actions in other spheres. A Yahoo sports article describes his charity as being used as a ‘moral cloak’, although smokescreen might be the better word. But we need to look further.

To what does LIVESTRONG owe its success? Would it be as popular and successful if Armstrong hadn’t come back from cancer (he continues to be a cancer survivor) and then hadn’t won all of those tours? Given that his success was, apparently, completely dependent upon illegal activity, aren’t we now indebted to Armstrong’s illegal activity for the millions of dollars that have gone to help people with cancer?

We can talk about moral luckfalse dichotomy and false antecedent/consequent (depending on which way around you wish to frame it) in this and this leads us into all sorts of weird and wonderful discussions, from a well-known and much discussed current affairs issue. But the core is quite simple: Armstrong’s actions had a significantly negative effect upon his world but at least one of the actions that he took has had a positive outcome. Whatever his motivation and intention, the outcome is beneficial. LIVESTRONG now has a challenge to see if it is big enough to survive this reversal of fortune but this is, most definitely, not the time to burn the bracelet. Turn it around, if you want, but, until it turns out that LIVESTRONG is some sort of giant front for clubbing baby harp seals, we can’t just lump this in with the unethical actions of one man.

I was thinking about what Armstrong could do now and, while I believe that he will never be able to do many of the things that he used to do (pro cycling/speaking arrangements/public figure), we know that he is quite good at two things:

  1. Riding a bike
  2. Getting drugs into difficult places.

One of the major problems in the world is getting the right pharmaceuticals to the right people because of government issues, instability and poverty. There are probably worse things for Armstrong to do than cycle from point to point, sneaking medicine past border guards, shinning down drain pipes to provide retrovirals to the poor in the slums of a poor city and hiking miles so that someone doesn’t die today. (I know, that’s all a bit hair shirt –  I’m not suggesting that seeking atonement is either required or sensible.) More seriously, the end of my ethical study in Armstrong will only be written when he works out what he wants to do next. Then my students can look at it, scratch their heads and try to work out where that now places him in terms of morality and ethics.

2 Comments on “A Study in Ethics: Lance Armstrong and Why You Shouldn’t Burn Your Bracelet.”

  1. Ivan Inderbitzin says:

    Here is an essay question for your students: What would you say to the cancer-surviving, cycling-enthusiast who donated tens of thousands of dollars to LiveStrong (including money he got from friends, family, and through fundraising activities) because she was impressed by Armstrong’s achievements, charisma and vision, but now she wants the money back? (Misguided linking of two different things or reasonable linking of two related things or….?) Good luck with the course. It’s a good idea. The case raises countless issues in ethics, sociology, philosophy, anthropology etc.. Obviously, this is not just about ‘placing Armstrong’, but a lot of other people, things, relations and events. The case has interesting local and global interconnections, involves dramatic life and sport stories, combines dark activities in side-alleys and the brightest limelight, gender issues, international relations, the media, and every now and then a bit of cycling… what more could you ask for?!?


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