Forget Balancing: Lance Armstrong Is a Villain

A constant conundrum faced by every culture is how it should categorize significant individuals whose positive contributions to society and civilization are marred by other acts that range from the unethical to the despicable. How much bad can a great man do and still be called “great”? How much wrong can a good woman engage in and still fairly be remembered as “good”? Can one wonderful act erase a lifetime of bad conduct? Are some bad acts so terrible that nothing can compensate for them? Every real human being is going to yield to some temptations, make some bad choices, be selfish, be cruel, lie, or worse. If we insist that all our heroes have an unblemished record in every aspect of their lives, we simply forfeit our heroes.

One reaction to this persistent dilemma is that we tend to be reluctant to look under the rock of a heroes accomplishments for fear that we will be disillusioned, or once the rock is lifted, we will attempt to rationalize into invisibility the ugly things we find there, or insist that they don’t matter. Of course they matter. It matters that Thomas Jefferson, who gave this nation its beating heart, didn’t pay his debts, cheated his friends and refused to live up to his own ideals. It matters that Clarence Darrow, who saved over a hundred men from execution, was a terrible father and husband and an unethical lawyer. It matters that Arthur Miller, whose plays dramatized the plight of the aging worker and the dangers of political persecution, rejected his mentally-challenged son, leaving him institutionalized and without contact from his father, though he knew who his father was. Charles Lindbergh, Jackie Kennedy, Diane Fossey, Thomas Edison, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Ted Kennedy, Pete Rose, Lillian Hellman, Walter Cronkite, Hillary Clinton—the list of the great, near-great, lionized and admired who behaved less than admirably or worse in significant ways can circle the globe. In assessing their character, as well as whether their lives deserve to be regarded as positive or negative influences on their society, fellow citizens and civilization, all we can do is apply a complex balancing formula, with factors in their lives weighted according to ethical principles, experience and our own priorities.

The question of how this balance should be applied has been raised in recent weeks in the wake of the final verdict on Lance Armstrong’s cycling career, which was decisively removed from the categories of “alleged misconduct,” “controversies,”and definitely “witch hunts” for all time as mountains of documentation, lab tests, and testimony moved it squarely into the categories of “outrageous cheating’, “criminal activity”, “corruption” and “fraud.” Armstrong, we now know, was a carefully manufactured fake champion. He cheated to win races and titles, again and again. He corrupted team mates by pressuring them to cheat too. He erected an elaborate system to protect himself from detection. He sold himself as role model to children. He manipulated the media. He attacked the integrity and motives of those who raised suspicion about his methods. He lied, and he used all of this to become rich. In the process, he ruined the lives of others, disillusioned biking enthusiasts, made children cynical before their time, and crushed the credibility and popularity of the sport that had given him everything he had.

Yet Armstrong also used his celebrity and legend, fraudulent though it was, to launch a foundation, Livestrong, that works to help cancer sufferers. He raised millions of dollars based on his inspiring story and athletic triumphs. There is no denying that Livestrong has helped, and will continue to help, many needy and deserving people. It does good work. Shouldn’t that make Lance Armstrong’s life a net positive to the world? Shouldn’t his cheating and lies be outweighed by the good works funded by the contributions that his cheating generated?


To allow Livestrong to alter the final judgment on Lance Armstrong, or elevate it in any way, embraces the worse extremes of an “ends justify the means” philosophy.  Armstrong didn’t merely launch Livestrong to atone for his misdeeds, as, one could argue, the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations were created to compensate society for the scars left by the greed and ruthless business practices of their namesakes. He actively used his false story of athletic achievement and personal heroism to build the foundation, inducing donors to give to Armstrong’s cause and an organization overseen by him personally, because his achievements gave them reason to trust him. If we allow Livestrong to justify Armstrong’s long, long deception, we are declaring that lies, misrepresentation, bullying, conspiracy, theft and worse can all be justified if their accumulated rewards are put to sufficiently beneficial use.

We can be grateful for the pyramids without lessening our horror at the slavery that constructed them. We can marvel at the Autobahn while justifiably reviling its creator, Adolf Hitler.  Lance Armstrong, we now know, is a complete and utter villain. That should be his legacy. His involvement in Livestrong is an embarrassment to the foundation, and casts a shadow over everything it does. It cannot and must not be used to excuse or mitigate his disgraceful misconduct, perhaps the most flagrant in the history of sport.

He is a villain.

That’s all.



Graphic: Richard North

19 thoughts on “Forget Balancing: Lance Armstrong Is a Villain

  1. “We can be grateful for the pyramids without lessening our horror at the slavery that constructed them.”

    IIRC, recent archaeological evidence suggests that the pyramids were built by paid labor- poorly paid, to be sure, but still paid. Signs have been found of “boom towns” that cropped up around some of the pyramids, with businesses that thrived on the wages of the workers- and some archaeologists suspect that there was a sophisticated support operation in place to maintain the safety and health of the workers (can’t haul stone if you’ve passed out from heat stroke). No evidence at this point that I am aware of suggests that the Egyptians took slaves from neighboring regions, at least during the period in which the pyramids were made. Sorry, minor quibble. I would look to the Aztec pyramids as a much better example of an impressive monument born of untold brutality.

  2. This proves that the label “Conspiracy Theorist” should be changed to “Conspiracy Factual-ist”. How this guy – and the money interests behind him, were able to cajole and bully themselves into this position without being outed or busted, AND demonize those who tried, should be run up the flagpole and studied by every citizen of this country. Because if this stifling silence exists in regards to a sport, Imagine what lies behind the history of mankind.

    What is Truth? There’s 2 choices – 1) the actual events as they took place, and 2) and the brainwashing and total manipulation of the masses by those who say what the truth is, by the barrel of a gun, media, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

    That’s it. And any argument of “Oh you’re just a crazy, tinfoil hat wearing CT, so many people couldn’t keep that big of a secret for so long blah blan blah” – is refuted by this particular example. So thanks for bringing this up and addressing Armstrong, his lesson and example of the paradox he has lived in such public view, to show that even such a “benign” Conspiracy such as this (nobody died, as compared to others) exists and flourish right in front of our eyes. It is my hope that you will turn the same high-powered observation and judgement, with this fresh eye, upon the more serious human events in progress taking place in this particular physical realm.

    • But BBA—this case proves why conspiracies don’t last. This one took place in a cocoon, amid widespread corruption, in an area where most people didn’t much care, but the circumstantial evidence came out early, and grew, and eventually the wall broke. I think it’s a great example of why elaborate conspiracy theories are fantasy. Real conspiracies don’t hold up, and the more importantt the issue, the shorter they do.

  3. I can’t help but see the connection between this post on Armstrong and your post on “The Girl” and Hitchcock though there are significant differences.

    I agree with everything said here but would like to add there is clear evidence Armstrong is not the only villain here. Personally, I also hold ICU and USADA responsible for failing to accurately monitor this situation and catch Armstrong sooner.

    An an analogy, if your kid cheats on a test at school you’re going to be upset at him. If you find out your kid has cheated at school but didn’t get caught until the 37th time because the teacher was not doing their job it’s not going to lessen your displeasure with your child but you child will not be the only focus of your anger either.

    • No, the connection is definitely there. Hitchcock is in the Lillian Hellman/Danny Kaye/Frank Sinatra/Woody Allen/ Roman Polanski/ David Letterman/ Richard Wagner category—good or great artists who are or were pretty awful people. Does the lack of character diminish the value of their art? No. But it may make it impossible for some to enjoy the art as much as if the artist wasn’t so disgusting. I don’t enjoy listening to Sinatra. Lillian Hellman’s moral preaching in her plays annoys me, since I know what a hypocrite she was. Woody Allen can’t make me laugh since he married his daughter after cheating on his wife with her. I won’t watch a Polanski film.

  4. I think the Carnegie/Rockefeller/Nobel difference is an important one. Those men gave away large sums of their life’s work to charity. For Carnegie, it was about $300 million (at the turn of the 19th century), for Rockefeller, $85 million, and Nobel, 94% of his assets (31 million kronor). For Carnegie and Nobel, this was almost everything they had built over their lifetimes (I think Carnegie was left with ~$25 million after he was done giving).

    I can’t tell if Lance Armstrong has put much of anything into the Livestrong Foundation other than his name and appearances. It raises money from individuals and corporate sponsors, has fundraising rides, etc. This is very different from the Foundations above. The cynical side of me suspects that Lance Armstrong has gotten more from the Livestrong Foundation than he has put into it. It doesn’t even begin to compare to the philanthropy listed above.

    I will post under Michael R. now that there is another Michael posting.

  5. Lance Armstrong ceased to be anyone I cared about when he left his dear wife and mother of two children…because she suffered a TREATABLE mental illness called depression. She never blamed him or pointed her finger at him but the fact is – he left her when she needed him most. No hero. Never. He showed his true character then. All the rest is a blur to me. His recent fall from grace does not surprise me in the least.

    Jack, I’m in search of true American heroes. I’m also fascinated at how feminists have given a free pass to people like JFK and Clinton. I go to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda for health care. Before consolidating with Walter Reed Army hospital it was the National Naval Medical Center. So, it has it’s roots with the Navy and most of the service members who work there are in the Navy or Marines. All that being said, I have to endure a HUGE mural of JFK with a quote about leadership on the wall behind the desk where I check into my clinic. Sitting in front of his mug are beautiful, promising young women in service to their nation in the Navy and I want to tell them – whatever you do, avoid men like that, Always have witnesses, expose them, never compromise your integrity by giving in to men in power above you in the chain of command. Sexual harassment is very real in the military and honoring JFK so prominently in a facility only recently built just feels to me like a punch in the gut to all women serving. While the Military is making great strides to stamp out sexual harassment, they put that man’s face up in glory for all who enter there to be inspired. UGH!

    JFK spent some time in the Navy as a pilot. The cynical side of me bets mommy and daddy paid someone to get him into the most elite group of pilots that existed at the time. I can’t prove that – I suspect that.

    So my questions to you are:

    Who are the true American heroes? Do you recommend a book about them? I admire Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. I’m hoping there are more for me to learn about – and to share with my children. Maybe most were unsung.

    Also, I’m serious here. Should I petition to have JFK’s mural removed from the wall in my otherwise gorgeous clinic – is that worth my energy? Or do you think I’m barking up the wrong tree there?

    • Actually, JFK was first attached to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington D.C. He was then romantically involved with a woman who was a suspected Nazi spy (she had been Hitler’s “companion” during the 1936 Olympics) and he was transferred out of Washington for fear that she would learn war secrets from him. He was transferred to the PT boat corps at that time (probably at the insistence of Hoover). He was never a pilot, to my knowledge.

        • I stand corrected. It appears JFK served quite honorably in the NAvy despite a back injury. The quote on the wall is a good one.

          “Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, ‘I served in the United States Navy,'” wrote President John F. Kennedy in August 1963.

          He was medically retired from the Naval Reserve in 1945.

      • Thanks, Isaac. I’d never heard of him. I suggested to my 17 year old High School Junior that she write her next “monthly fun paper” on him. What an amazing man!

  6. Well. The biggest impact on reputation, independently whose reputation, is the media. We are talking about the balance of the media, and not necessarily regarding the good things these people have done and the bad things. The problem lies more in how the media portrays, displays and presents to the public, stories that nobody knows whether are true or not; in how they accuse and hunt down whomever is at the top. Presenting stories from one perspective rather than all of them is what drives coverage nowadays. Logically, when people read such biased stories they form an opinion and then, these protagonists become villains and nothing more.

    Indeed, when presenting such stories media should also remind people how great these “villains” have been. Everything lies in how the media presents it. I think they shouldn’t have the right to be opinionated especially when someone is accused of something without being officially proven so. It is all about reputation…

    • I don’t know what this comment has to do with Armstrong. He has been conclusively proven to be a liar and a cheater—I don’t see what “official” has to do with it, at this advanced stage. You’re incoherent. What do you mean, “all of them”? What “perspectives” are there, other than rationalizations? What do you mean, remind people how great these villains have been? In what way was a phony champion great? He fooled people into believing he was great. Why the scare quotes around “villains”? You don’t regard a guy who steals championships, corrupts other athletes, lies to kids and uses a fraudulent career to raise money as a true villain?

      Try “Ethical Babbling;” it fits better.

  7. You are being rude…I am speaking about celebrities in general…Yes Armstrong was wrong to continue lying when the rules have changed but what about all the good things he has done? What about all those charities that will now be affected? I am speaking that what a major role the media has in how stories like these are presented. How do you know that all the accusations you just enumerated are true? Did he acknowledged so? Did he state “yes I corrupted other athletes and lied to kids”? You are biased and you are presenting your biased point of view and now I am presenting mine. You have no right to be rude…

    In my view doping in this sport has been part of the culture for years, it just became a “bad thing” recently…Your point of view is obviously formed by what you read in the media.

    • You inject sophistry into a serious discussion and I called you on it, as is completely appropriate. “Your point of view is obviously formed by what you read in the media.” WHAT media? Armstrong was a media darling; I was suspicious of him long before the other shoe dropped. Most of the media, like you, have adopted the invalid “balancing” argument, as if when someone cheats he get credit for the incidental good that comes out of it. The ends don’t justify the means when the means are lying, posing, corrupting and cheating.

      Armstrong isn’t a celebrity in general, so again, the comment is a non-sequitur. He is a fake celebrity, a fraud. I don’t see any general lessons about heroes or celebrities to be drawn for one of the worst example from either category. “What about all those charities that will now be affected?” What about them? Armstrong is responsible for their current plight, nobody else. He built them on lies, and make them dependent on a career that was a fraud. “How do you know that all the accusations you just enumerated are true?” I know it because I waded through the exhaustive testimony, test results and evidence. He has no defense. Literally nobody who has reviewed the record believes that Armstrong is innocent. “Did he acknowledged so?” Who cares? The evidence is incontrovertible; way, way beyond reasonable doubt. “Did he state “yes I corrupted other athletes and lied to kids”?” Again, what does it matter what Armstrong says? The historical, factual record says he lied and corrupted. “You are biased and you are presenting your biased point of view and now I am presenting mine. You have no right to be rude.” No, you are in denial and fantasy land, and wasting everyone’s time. You have no right to arbitrarily ignore facts and state an opinion that has no basis whatsoever, not on this blog.

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