On the program side, I learned that Livestrong provides an innovative and expanding suite of direct services to help cancer survivors negotiate our Kafkaesque health care system. Beyond that, though, I found a curiously fuzzy mix of cancer-war goals like “survivorship” and “global awareness,” labels that seem to entail plastering the yellow Livestrong logo on everything from T-shirts to medical conferences to soccer stadiums. Much of the foundation’s work ends up buffing the image of one Lance Edward Armstrong, which seems fair—after all, Livestrong wouldn’t exist without him. But Livestrong spends massively on advertising, PR, and “branding,” all of which helps preserve Armstrong’s marketability at a time when he’s under fire. Meanwhile, Armstrong has used the goodwill of his foundation to cut business deals that have enriched him personally, an ethically questionable move.
“It’s a win-win,” says Daniel Borochoff, head of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group. “He builds up the foundation, and they build up him.”
Equally interesting is what the foundation doesn’t do. Most people—including nearly everybody I surveyed while reporting this story—assume that Livestrong funnels large amounts of money into cancer research. Nope. The foundation gave out a total of $20 million in research grants between 1998 and 2005, the year it began phasing out its support of hard science. A note on the foundation’s website informs visitors that, as of 2010, it no longer even accepts research proposals.
Nevertheless, the notion persists that Livestrong’s main purpose is to help pay for lab research into cancer cures. In an online “60 Minutes Overtime” interview after the May broadcast, CBS anchor Scott Pelley said Armstrong’s alleged misdeeds were mitigated because “he has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research.”
Pelley isn’t alone in getting that wrong: a search of The New York Times turns up dozens of hits for “Armstrong” and “cancer research.” An Associated Press story from August 2010 described Livestrong as “one of the top 10 groups funding cancer research in the United States.” The comments section of any article about Armstrong will inevitably include messages like this one from ESPN.com: “keep raising millions for cancer research lance, and ignore the haters.” At one point, the foundation brought in a PR consultant to try and clarify the messaging, but Armstrong himself says there’s only so much they can do. “We can’t control what everybody says they’re wearing the bracelets for,” he told me.
At the same time, though, Armstrong and his supporters help perpetuate the notion that they are, in fact, helping battle cancer in the lab. “I am here to fight this disease,” he angrily told journalist Paul Kimmage at a press conference held during his 2009 comeback. In 2010, the foundation agreed to let an Australian hospital call its new research facility the Livestrong Cancer Research Center. And when I recently visited my local RadioShack, a major Armstrong sponsor, the clerk asked, “Would you like to make a donation to the Livestrong foundation to help support cancer research?”
No wonder people get confused.
WITH ITS RECLAIMED-WOOD SURFACES and industrial-chic design, Livestrong HQ resembles a cutting-edge Whole Foods—another signature Austin institution. Here in East Austin, the poorer side of town, there’s no Whole Foods, just dusty carnicerías that sell fantastic tongue tacos. A renovated warehouse, the $9 million building opened in 2009.