For once, we didn’t see this coming: In case you haven’t heard, cyclist, cancer survivor and one-man-brand Lance Armstrong has announced that he will ‘stop fighting’ the cheating charges leveled against him by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. This means that Armstrong may well be officially stripped of his record-setting seven Tour de France titles. Yes, it’s a bit of a shocker.
How to respond? From a PR perspective, it seems as if Armstrong has chosen the best available option: By refusing to endure the “arbitration process,” he can continue to claim–as he always has–that the longstanding doping charges leveled against him amount to a “witchhunt” and highlight the fact that he never tested positive on any official drug test (though any commentors who use this fact as evidence of his innocence should remember that Marion Jones and many other disgraced athletes never tested positive while competing). Unfortunately, his decision all but ensures that supporters will never have a satisfactory answer to the question: If he is truly innocent, why not endure the process to the end and prove it once and for all?
Armstrong may have avoided suffering a fate like that of Jones, Floyd Landis and Barry Bonds, but the fact remains: No matter how many fans post supportive messages on his Facebook page, his brand is forever tarnished–and it’s a big one. Even some of his oldest, most fervent supporters have accepted his non-denial as an effective admission of guilt. The story also leads us back to the “Anonymous Sports PR Guy” who participated in Deadspin’s online Q&A this week: When asked about Armstrong, this reported industry vet called him “a liar and a cheater” whose millions would be permanently tainted; it seems like Lance managed to make a few enemies who weren’t involved in any anti-doping agency.
What will happen to Armstrong’s incredibly successful Livestrong brand, not to mention his many big-name endorsements? The outlook isn’t too hot: In 2011, he reported that his charity had encountered some fund-raising problems in the weak economy, and we can’t see this story reversing that trend. While Nike is reportedly “standing by their man” for now, their position could quickly change as well.
We can’t claim any level of expertise on the world of professional sports or the many performance-enhancing substances that seem to plague its every corner–so we won’t offer an opinion on the details of this case. But from a public image perspective, we believe that the bottom has fallen out of Armstrong’s official state of denial. And we can’t see him winning any new endorsement deals in the foreseeable future.