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Why Lance Armstrong Can Mount a Comeback

Why Lance Armstrong Can Mount a Comeback

Why Lance Armstrong Can Mount a Comeback

Late last week, the New York Times reported Lance Armstrong might come clean regarding the doping allegations which led to his ban from professional cycling and stripped him of his Tour de France titles and Olympic medals.

While I don’t know if cycling’s authorities will lift his lifetime ban or if he can ever compete at a high level again, it is possible that he can “come back” as a sports figure of some kind.  It’s uncharted territory, but I believe such things are possible.

Forgiving Culture
Americans embrace forgiveness.  While we all feel cheated by Armstrong’s actions and the damning evidence against him, no one, I presume, wants to see him hanging from the gallows.  In Miami, the former adopted refuge of O.J. Simpson, I saw people publicly back-slapping Simpson, a man who was convicted of killing a man.*  And while infidelity isn’t a crime, former President Bill Clinton is cheered at every turn.  In America, we like to forgive and forget (Don’t even get me started on underdogs).  So, anyone in America can come back.

Will Take Time
It won’t happen quickly.  Former home run king Mark McGwire, who handled performance enhancing drug allegations worse than most, now serves as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.  He was out of baseball for eight years before being hired by the Cardinals in 2009 and officially admitting his steroid use in 2010.  It’s doubtful that McGwire will ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he certainly raised his stock among the vast swath of disgraced former athletes.  Armstrong needs to take his first step and see where it leads him.

Legal Mess
One thing that public relations can’t fix and is likely holding him back is his legal mess.  Sponsors feel jilted, and former teammate Floyd Landis is, ironically, a party in the whistleblower case which could cost Armstrong millions.  When meting out PR advice, we need to check with the lawyers and make sure a needed public apology won’t land our client in prison.  If Armstrong can come clean and not get led-away moments later in leg irons, then he should do it.

Why Do It?  Why Now?
This goes back to the forgiving culture argument.  Life is short and while Armstrong may never be viewed as a national hero again, he can be a contributing member of society.  His fundraising efforts for Livestrong were tremendous, and I imagine that cancer survivors can still look to him as inspirational, albeit less miraculous.  There’s a place on this spinning orb for Armstrong, as long as he confronts the past.

Start with the Truth
My recommendation to Armstrong would be start with the truth, and it might look something like this: U.S. Anti-Doping Agency testimony (as summarized in Sports Illustrated last October) suggests that years ago Armstrong knew other cyclists were doping, and he, tired of losing to them, wanted to level the playing field.  Two wrongs don’t make a right, but it’s a plausible beginning to the arc of his cheating.  He certainly could have only fantasized about later winning seven tours, dating a rock star and being the head of a globally recognized powerhouse charity.  A dramatic upward spiral, much like that experienced by Bernie Madoff, would have been difficult to simply step-away from.  I’m not condoning what he did, but you can surmise that he found himself in a situation where continued cheating was easier than doing the right thing.  Such messaging makes sense.  From there, he will have to try to justify his arrogance, obfuscation and lying.  But a believable and relatable narrative makes a comeback possible.

What TV-Producers Call a “Get”
With message points in-hand and well-rehearsed, Armstrong will begin a whirlwind tour of another kind.  Starting with the biggest “Get” of 2013 with Matt Lauer, Piers Morgan, or Diane Sawyer, he will do the media circuit with his apology tour and try to start anew as a sports figure.  Will he cry?  I doubt it, but he can make himself look human and vulnerable and hopefully appear genuine.

Time Heals, Right?
And then we will wait.  If reinstated, Armstrong will start competing in triathlons, mountain biking or the like and attempt to mend his battered reputation.  It will take years, but he’s still young, and we know he is stubborn and determined.  If he approaches his climb back with humility, he has a chance to make a return like that of McGwire.  If he remains arrogant and in denial, then he may be doomed to a reputation like that of Barry Bonds or Pete Rose – unrepentant to the end.

In summary: Get approval from the lawyers, lead with the truth, be humble and then let our forgiving culture and time heal the wounds.  He can do it.

What do you think?



Author: John P. David

*On February 6, 1997, a jury unanimously found there was a preponderance of evidence to hold Simpson liable for damages in the wrongful death of Goldman and battery of Brown.

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