After years of denial, Lance Armstrong has admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance enhancing drugs.
Exactly what he said, and why, will remain a mystery until Winfrey’s interview with the disgraced cyclist airs on her OWN cable network Thursday.
But any admission at all is a stunning turnaround for Armstrong. It holds serious ramifications for the Livestrong Foundation, the cancer-related charity he created in 1997 (and whose board he left after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a long-awaited report on allegations that he doped) – as well as the many thousands of cancer survivors who have benefitted from the services, such as advice on financing care, locating specialists, and preserving fertility after treatment, that the foundation provides.
As charity governance expert Jack Siegel said: “The problem with tying yourself to a celebrity is that it’s great on the way up, but on the way down, you pay the price.”
And there’s no mistaking that Livestrong, and its work on behalf of cancer survivors, is tightly bound up with Armstrong.
Last year, writer Bill Gifford detailed in an article for Outside magazine how Livestrong and Armstrong have been interchangeable, each using the other for mutual advantage. In fact, Livestrong was so worried about that story, Outside editorial director Alex Heard said it tried to use hardball pressure tactics, including threats of legal action, to stop publication.
Now that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and his own confessions have shown Armstrong to be a cheat and a liar, the question is whether his cancer-fighter legacy will suffer and whether Livestrong itself can survive.
Contrary to common misperception, Livestrong does not raise money for cancer research. It uses its resources to help survivors negotiate life during and after treatment. Many cancer survivors who’ve used Livestrong’s resources, not to mention the foundation’s employees and its business partners, will take the threat to its future personally. To Rose Ireland, a cancer survivor quoted on the foundation’s website, Livestrong “means live to your fullest…I didn’t know how strong I was.”
So despite the scandal -- or Armstrong's reported strong-arming -- the story of his rise from near-fatal testicular cancer won’t go away. Millions of people have taken, and will continue to take, inspiration from his example that life after cancer is possible.
When ESPN sports anchor Stuart Scott tweeted on Monday night that his cancer had returned, he included the #Livestrong hashtag. Hundreds of Twitter users have since used the medium to say Armstrong’s example has encouraged them or members of their families. As one person with the handle @LoSco11, stated, “Lance Armstrong’s legacy shouldn’t be about cycling, it should be about the millions of people he has inspired.”
Armstrong's ability to participate in an extreme sport following his bout with cancer has also contributed to changes in medical practice. Today, physical fitness rehabilitation is rapidly becoming a standard of care for cancer survivors. For example, breast cancer survivors are often instructed to lift weights as a way to alleviate lymphedema, a common side effect of surgery and/or treatment.
But apart from the lesson his personal story teaches, and whatever good the foundation has done for those who’ve used its services, Livestrong may face serious headwinds from now on.
Already, for example, a sports stadium in Kansas City, citing a business dispute with Livestrong, has removed the foundation’s name from the building.
According to Thomas Murray, president emeritus of The Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in New York State; the vice-chair of Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog; and chair of the ethical issues review panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency, Livestrong’s future is still bound up with Armstrong.
“If I were Livestrong, my strategy depends on how sympathetic a figure he can make himself,” Murray told NBCNews.com. It won’t be enough for Armstrong to talk to Oprah, he said. He’ll have to show true remorse and issue sincere apologies to those he’s hurt in the past like Tour de France champion Greg LeMond and others who tried to blow the whistle and were met with vicious personal attacks and threats.
If he does all that, Murray suggested, “I think then it could be an inspiring story.”
Charity Navigator gives Livestrong a four-star rating -- its highest -- and Murray said the organization has a good reputation. But, as reporters like Gifford have suggested, Murray believes the implied connection between the commercial, for-profit, Livestrong.com, a “licensing partner” of the charity, and the nonprofit foundation, Livestrong.org, “is dancing as close to the edge of inappropriate as you can get.”
Livestrong insisted in a prepared statement that it is “charting a strong, independent course” into the future without Armstrong. “We feel confident and optimistic about the foundation’s future and welcome an end to speculation.” Gifford, though, thinks Armstrong and the charity have been too integrated.
“Lance needed Livestrong to help him build and leverage his brand,” he said. “I don’t see it going on without him. The level of dishonesty exposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has to make donors think twice before they write any checks.”
Seigel agrees. “I have looked at crisis situations for charities too affiliated with one person and it’s always a problem,” he said. “I would be concerned if I worked there, not so much for this year, or even next year, but where is it ten years from now? To a certain extent, they are faced with having to rebuild their hook to get attention…If they are raising money based on goodwill for an athlete, and he is no longer involved, it’s unclear what they bring to the table.”
Brian Alexander (www.BrianRAlexander.com) is co-author, with Larry Young Ph.D., of "The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the
Science of Attraction," (www.TheChemistryBetweenUs.com), now on sale.