Op-Ed: Did Armstrong Just Crush the U.S. Government?

It sure looks like it. Bill Gifford on the $100 million legal battle that ended with a whimper.

The settlement outraged many who believe that much of his fortune was utterly ill-gotten. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty)
lance armstrong

Once again, Lance Armstrong has worn out everyone else. This time, instead of his Tour de France rivals—who he and his jacked-up teammates ground down relentlessly—or his many real and perceived foes, it was the federal government’s brigade of lawyers, who agreed to settle their $97 million fraud case for $5 million plus another chunk in fees. That's chump change for a guy who, according to an Outside profile by S.C. Gwynne, reportedly told his friend his net worth was around “100 milski.” And of course, the settlement outraged many who believe that much of Armstrong’s fortune was utterly ill-gotten.

In a just world, a cheat on Armstrong’s scale should have to give back most or all of his gains. The question has always been: Give back to who? The competitors he beat? Not exactly angels—though of course there are varying degrees of evil. The teammates who had to put up with his shit? Maybe, though many of them were cheating, too. The enemies he tried to destroy, even when he knew they were telling the truth? It would have been nice to see the Andreus and the LeMonds get something for what he put them through. At least Floyd Landis gets $1.1 million. But it’s still half a milski less than the $1.65 million that Landis’s own lawyer gets.

It was only a year ago that the federal judge in the case swatted down Armstrong’s motion for summary judgment, allowing the dispute to head toward trial. One can reasonably assume that Armstrong badly wanted it all to go away and had made settlement offers well north of what he ultimately paid. Why would the Department of Justice, which was heading pell-mell for trial, suddenly decide to cash out five years’ worth of holy war for five cents on the dollar? No one knows, although the statement released by the Armstrong camp on April 19 mentioned “several significant court rulings rejecting and limiting the plaintiffs’ damages theories.”

Whatever the case, it has always been difficult to see how the U.S. Postal Service was actually harmed by Armstrong’s doping. Perhaps in the form of his performance bonuses, which Armstrong consigliere Bill Stapleton liked to work into many of his contracts? Regardless, the USPS has much bigger problems now, such as whether it will exist in five years. But imagine how those contract negotiations might have gone if Armstrong had performed as poorly as he had in his first Tour outing, where he won a single stage and then dropped out before Paris. Andy Hampsten finished eighth that year. America yawned.

Also, there was the matter of the government’s whistleblower and lead plaintiff, Landis, who could charitably be described as a flawed witness. He literally told a book’s worth of lies, and sought donations from the fans who still believed him, before he came clean. (Why he ruined his life basically to protect Armstrong, and didn’t tell all when he was caught, has always puzzled me.) He paid the price with his dark days of substance abuse before he decided to spill the beans. A million bucks seems about right. (Although he agreed to refund the money to donors to the Floyd Fairness Fund, which was set up to help pay for his legal defense, to avoid criminal prosecution.)

It’s worth remembering that Armstrong has lost a lot more than the $6 million or so in this settlement: all his sponsorships, private settlements with other parties, and much of his future earning power, along with his ability to compete in most public events, are gone. Imagine where he’d be if he hadn’t made the mistake of coming back to cycling in 2009 and stirring up a hornet’s nest in a sport that believed it was free of him and his toxic shtick. Governor of Texas? The U.S. Senate? Now he’s got a podcast.

Some people dislike Armstrong because he cheated; others argue that his real crime was being a jerk. When the history of sport in this century is written, though, I think he’ll be remembered for something else: helping transform athletics into something that more closely resembles organized crime. He’ll take his place between BALCO and the Russian state-sponsored doping machine for his part in driving the institutionalized corruption of sports.

Only he was smarter. Marion Jones played small ball and she went to jail. The Russians are pariahs forever. Team Lance, meanwhile, was pulling off the perfect long con. Armstrong came in at the precise moment when the sport was already reeling from doping scandals and somehow convinced the world that he was clean because he was American and a cancer survivor. He used science, via the brilliant Dr. Michele Ferrari, to transform himself from a one-day rider—about whom nobody but hardcore U.S. roadies would give a crap—to a guy who could win the Tour, then leveraged his incredible survival story to make himself a wealthy global celebrity.

His thuggish associates kept the truth contained, at least for a while. Yet somehow, with regard to Landis and also Tyler Hamilton, he failed to learn the key lesson of The Sopranos: if you’ve got a guy on the outside who’s disgruntled and knows too much, you either buy him off or take him fishing. Instead he let them hang. That obviously didn’t work out. On the other hand, Armstrong got out this mess for a relative pittance.

Meanwhile, the Tour de France is coming up, clouded by the fact that another recent champion, Team Sky’s Chris Froome, is in the crosshairs of suspicion. The similarities are uncanny. The sketchy aura of secrecy around the star, the lame denials and suspicious minor positive test (Froome for an inhaler drug, Lance for a corticosteroid in 1999), even the tactics, which are out of Postal’s playbook: amassing a really strong team, doping them to the gills (allegedly, in Sky’s case), and then grinding down the opposition. (During one particularly blatant year, 2003, U.S. Postal riders swept four of the top ten spots in the race’s final time trial.) It never ends.

Meanwhile, Lance is going gray and shaggy, working on being a dad, sending his son off to play football in the fall, and in all likelihood spending more time at his home in Aspen. Floyd is a chubby weed magnate in Colorado. They seem relatively happy, all things considered. It’s probably a good thing that they, and we, can finally move on.

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