The news that even Nike can no longer stomach keeping a place warm for Lance Armstrong despite the rogue's gallery of other endorser-athletes it has stood by over the years is a remarkable twist in the cyclist's accelerating spiral from heroic cultural icon to disgraced champion and unconscionable liar. Even Nike has had enough?
The same company that stuck with Tiger Woods through every disgrace, re-signed Michael Vick after his dogfighting scandal and remained loyal to Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger in the dicey early days after each was accused of sexual misconduct, can't find room on campus anymore for a cash cow like Armstrong now that a report released last week by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency revealed he wasn't just your garden-variety PED user, but the ringleader of the best damn doping ring that cycling has ever seen?
This is a dramatic paradigm shift for Nike, all right. From the company's inception under founder Phil Knight, Nike has consciously built its uber-hip image and market dominance on a strategy of signing edgy athletes dating all the way back to tennis bad boy John McEnroe in the 1970s. And the general attitude seemed to be, the more Nike athletes stirred the pot, the better.
But don't miss the way Nike's decision fits into the big picture in sports, too. Because it actually says something very encouraging about how sports in general is moving away from the old "Whatever It Takes" or "Just Do It" ethos toward something better.
Nike obviously decided it was impossible to ignore the Armstrong problem anymore. Apparently, even Faustian bargains have limits. The company's announcement Wednesday came on the same day Armstrong announced he was stepping down as chairman of his Livestrong Foundation that Nike has worked on hand in hand with him from the start. It is impossible to miss how the regret-tinged tone of the Nike press release was remarkably similar to the tone of a statement Knight himself released on July 12, acknowledging that his vociferous defense of Penn State coach Joe Paterno in the early days after the child molestation charges broke against Jerry Sandusky was an error.
The fact that Nike -- even cynical, jaundiced, seen-it-all Nike -- can be this affected by proof that Armstrong and his cycling team were systematically doping and physically harming themselves to compete plugs into similar debates that are already going on now across sports. (Trek, RadioShack, Giro and brewer Anheuser-Busch have also cut ties with Armstrong.)
In the NHL, it's the ongoing discussions about fist fighting and hits to the head. In baseball, it's been how to chase out PED users and punish the ones that get caught. And when it comes to the NFL, you know the drumbeat of news about brain trauma and bounty payments and player safety is gaining traction when even Steelers linebacker James Harrison -- a man who so long styled himself as the league's baddest badass of them all -- is now openly discussing about how he puts military-grade, Kevlar-like pads in his helmet to reduce his risk of suffering more concussions.
That's the new "Whatever It Takes."
And now here comes Nike, on the heels of last week's release of the damning and painstakingly detailed USADA report that illustrated just how far Armstrong was willing to go to win the Tour de France, finally saying it can't and won't condone what Armstrong did.
Nike isn't leading the way on this issue as much as jumping on a bandwagon that's already rolling. A cynic could dismiss it by saying Nike is merely doing something it has always been great at: reading the Zeitgeist. But so what if the end result is the same?
If even Nike blanches at the continued existence of some gladiatorial class of athletes who commit fraud or abuse drugs and their bodies for profit and our entertainment pleasure, then that is a very, very good change.
It's yet another sign of how sports is moving away from the idea that anything goes and moving back, however glacially, toward the reason so many of us fell in love with sports in the first place: the idea that in sports, anything is possible.
Armstrong peddled the miracle storyline about himself for a very long time, and now we know a big part of it was a lie. Reasonable people can choose to dismiss him as the greatest cyclist ever to dope, but still find great merit in the story of how he survived cancer or worked to raise awareness about the disease. That's fine.
But the details of the USADA investigation that Armstrong chose weeks ago not to fight are so condemning, there can be little arguing about his guilt anymore.
Lance's apologists have echoed his complaints that USADA was the latest protagonist unreasonably out to get him. But if it turns out nothing untoward was done during the investigation and USADA's worst "sin" was matching Armstrong's decade-long zeal for lying with some indefatigable efforts to prove he's a cheat, then it doesn't outrage me that he's been exposed.
I don't want a sports world in which the bar for entry is having to take PEDs to compete well at any level. To me, that's ethically unconscionable. This is a public health issue as much as a competitive sports issue. And pondering the human toll is ground zero -- for me, anyway -- in my personal deliberations of the highly complicated question of "What do I think of Lance Armstrong now?"
The idea that PED users only affect themselves -- so why not just relax and let them have it at? -- is a canard. Just look at what a travesty the Tour de France turned into.
I'd rather see sports remain in that imperfect, non-absolute margin where they are at least made cleaner than they would be without PED testing, if only so those who are disinclined to cheat don't have to. An affecting example in the USADA report involves Dave Zabriskie, who initially resisted doping and cried alone after the first time he was injected with EPO because his father died from a drug problem.
Armstrong's charade to position himself as the last clean guy in cycling is especially despicable because of his special constituency -- the millions of people who use his story as a touchstone in their own fight against cancer or other hurdles in their lives. But the USADA report also gives new depth and breadth to the other collateral damage Armstrong's deceit caused, and the almost sociopathic risks and staggering lengths he went to cheat, and then protect the lie.
The USADA report contains sworn statements from 26 witnesses, 11 of them former teammates. Many of them described how Armstrong demanded or intimidated them into playing along with the doping scheme. The USADA report presents scientific evidence, such as new analyses of old test data and urine samples, that shows Armstrong cheated from his first Tour de France victory to his last comeback race. The riders who signed sworn affidavits also testified before a federal grand jury or were questioned by federal investigators, risking perjury if they lied or changed their stories. And after suing, threatening or smearing many of the very same 26 witnesses in the court of public opinion for years, Armstrong chose not challenge any of it in arbitration? Instead, he claimed he was now tired of the witch hunt.
It was a day most people thought they'd never see: Lance gave up the fight?
The same goes now for Nike's decision to distance itself from him.