By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
August 24, 2012
The reasons athletes why get involved in charitable work are as varied as the athletes themselves. For some it’s a lifelong calling to make a positive impact on their world, while others ride out a personal or family tragedy and have a burning desire to respond. Still others invest in nonprofits strictly for tax purposes.
And then there are athletes who plunge into philanthropy as a bad behavior buffer. “If I’m a model citizen, practicing good social responsibility,” they figure, “then my fans and sponsors will still love me even if I do something wrong.”
Seven time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was called to his fight against cancer for the most personal of reasons—he overcame testicular cancer in the mid 1990s, and vowed to do whatever he could to help others battling the disease. The result is LIVEStrong, a foundation that has raised close to $500 million and helped over 550 organizations through a global cancer research support system.
Even the most jaded cynic can’t doubt Armstrong’s motives for launching LIVEStrong and his tireless work for the organization. But in the wake of Armstrong’s announcement on Thursday that he’s quitting his fight against drug charges and a lifetime ban from cycling by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that would strip him of the seven Tour titles, it’s apparent that those signature LIVEStrong rubber yellow bracelets are the only thing that will shield Armstrong’s reputation from the brand death penalty of a Barry Bonds or Joe Paterno in the eyes of the world.
The damage to Armstrong’s endorsement portfolio is permanent. Recent Q Scores reveal that nearly three times more Americans dislike than like him. His Radio Shack-Trek cycling team, as well as former U.S. Postal Service teammates, have rushed to distance themselves. The Michelob Ultra beer commercials that cycle through weekend sports programming? They’ll no doubt be phased out. And while Nike, his biggest sponsor and partner in the LIVEstrong shoe and apparel line, is vowing its continued support, it’s likely that will diminish.
The question that really matters now: what is the long term damage to LIVEStrong from Armstrong’s calling it quits in the Battle de Dope?
The foundation on its own boasts rock solid management practices synonymous with public trust, irreproachable ethics, accountability, and transparency. And it continues to succeed. According to a USA Today report, in the first six months of 2012, 8,000 more cancer survivors contacted the foundation for help or information than in any similar period of any year. Average donations had increased slightly, up to $75 from $72, and the volume of donations (800,000) was up by about 20% over the previous two years.
On Twitter and elsewhere, however, skeptics have suggested that Armstrong was attempting to use his foundation as a PR shield to deflect attention away from the allegations. This perspective is enforced by Armstrong’s frequent references to LIVEstrong in his own defense. After the USADA charges came to light, he tweeted, “I refuse to be distracted by their antics. It’s 2012, I’m gonna continue to lead @LIVEstrong, raise my 5 kids, and stay fit!”
For the sake of LIVEStrong and the millions of cancer patients it continues to support, Armstrong now must make another difficult choice. It’s not just a matter of temporarily moving to the back seat of the tandem bicycle he rides with his namesake foundation. For the foreseeable future, until the public memory has faded, Armstrong needs to get off that bike and walk away.