The Moral Calculus of Lance Armstrong’s Doping

by evanmcmurry

Gary Belsky poses an interesting question at New York Magazine: does Lance Armstrong’s extraordinarily successful charity justify his doping? (NB: Belsky doesn’t actually argue in favor of this, just asks it.)

The logic is that Lance’s Livestrong Foundation wouldn’t have raised a fraction of its $500 million had Armstrong simply been a good or even great cyclist, rather than the greatest of all time. If you want to look at it charitably (ahem), Armstrong’s transgression was entirely figurative—he violated the invisible dignity of an abstract construct called “sports”—while the good Livestrong has performed has been tangible, palpable. Here’s Belsky:

If you’re an obsessed sports fan, there’s no excusing the systematic blood doping that Armstrong allegedly engaged in during his incredible seven-year run of Tour de France victories. Houston jurors, after all, didn’t cut former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay any slack for juicing his company’s books because he also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local NAACP chapter and Holocaust museum. By this logic, the punishments Armstrong has suffered—stripped of his Tour wins, dropped last Wednesday by longtime sponsor Nike—were coming to him. But that logic is also a little wobbly. In a case like Lay’s, there are real victims: the defrauded investors and the thousands of employees who lost their nest eggs and their jobs. Armstrong, on the other hand, won races that just would have been won by other riders—some of whom, it’s safe to say, had a “medical program” of their own.

With Armstrong’s offenses properly framed, the second part of the moral equation becomes the more important one: Did he do enough good to make the cheating worth it? Your answer will be a subjective one, of course, but here are some relevant facts: His Livestrong Foundation—created as the Lance Armstrong Foundation two years before his first Tour win—has raised nearly $500 million to fight cancer; it’s rated A- by the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch. Roughly 82 percent of the nearly $36 million that Livestrong reportedly spent last year went to programs rather than overhead. That’s impressive for any nonprofit and better, for example, than the beneficent St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which is rated B+ by Charity Watch and passes along only 81 percent of its donations to research and treatment. Among charities started by sports stars, Livestrong is in a class by itself, operating with financial efficiency “virtually unheard of in athlete charities,” as ESPN The Magazine’s Shaun Assael recently wrote. Nike, while deciding Armstrong, the tainted rider, is now bad for its image, has said it will continue to support his philanthropy.

Not gonna lie: I could buy that argument. But last weekend, the Times, which had a good, thorough rundown of the unraveling of Armstrong’s wall of silence, added this to the picture:

The morning after the race ended, David Zabriskie — a five-time national time-trial champion and one of Armstrong’s former teammates — showed up on the doorstep of the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, finally ready to tell his story. He had requested that Tygart be in the room — he was one of two riders who did so — and what Tygart heard was chilling.

Zabriskie, a gangly rider with a sharp, quirky wit, said he had gone through some bad things in life, but being pushed to use drugs was one of the worst.

The day he first used the banned blood booster erythropoietin, or EPO, he said, Johan Bruyneel — the Postal Service team director and longtime Armstrong confidant — had told him that “everyone is doing it.” Hearing that had crushed him.

His father had been an alcoholic, drug user and drug dealer and died young because of it, Zabriskie said Thursday in his first interview since his testimony in Armstrong’s case was made public.

His father would push his mother around, prompting the young Zabriskie to step in and try to protect her. One night, when Zabriskie was in junior high, his father was arrested after a SWAT team burst into their suburban Salt Lake City home.

Cycling became a refuge. Bruyneel took Zabriskie under his wing shortly after Zabriskie’s father died in 2000 from a failing liver. Soon, he was pressing Zabriskie to use performance-enhancing drugs, Zabriskie said.

“What Johan did to me, I consider it a form of abuse because it was so horrible and affected me for the rest of my life,” Zabriskie said, choking up. “I know I was the first person to tell my story because Johan, he doesn’t need to be around young cyclists.”

 Bruyneel has been charged by antidoping officials with administering the doping program on Armstrong’s teams.

A man who overcame a familial cycle of drug abuse only to be handed a needle by Armstrong’s crew strikes me as a “real” victim. Plug that back into the moral formula Belsky proposes above and you no longer have the question of whether Armstrong’s charity excuses his victimless crime of doping, but how many victims his charity justifies. Or, to put it back into the figurative realm in which this started, how much wrong is permissible as the means to a good end? The more we learn about Armstrong’s unprecedented doping scheme, the tighter that ratio is going to become.