The Saturday Sports Reader: Convicting Lance Armstrong

My previously expressed views (here and here) on the “investigation” of Lance Armstrong by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency haven’t changed with this week’s release of its “Reasoned Decision,” a lengthy accumulation of its case against him.

Neither has the seemingly consensus view that the disgraced seven-time Tour de France champion (for now) is pure evil, and that the unaccountable agency that gets most of its funding from American taxpayers is inherently good in ridding the scourge of doping in sports by any means necessary.

But in the name of fairness, some of the most touted analysts of the “Reasoned Decision” — how about that for an official euphemism? — need to be included here, for as much as I think they are the essence of rhetorical unfairness, all in the name of rooting “cheaters” out of the world of athletics.

To repeat this disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Lance Armstrong and I’m not in favor of doping. But neither should it be criminalized, and it’s dismaying to see the mainstream media and the public equate steroid use with real crime: Lance Armstrong as the drug lord of cycling, a Pablo Escobar in tight shorts.

ESPN.com’s Bonnie D. Ford, one of the top cycling journalists in any country, is as well-versed in this case as anyone. Yet her take is loaded with USADA-style hyperbole:

“There is no other logical conclusion. After today, anyone who remains unconvinced simply doesn’t want to know.”

And yes, while Armstrong was far from the only cyclist alleged to have been doping, there’s this:

“Every participant in the sport-wide Ponzi scheme of that time was to some extent the product of a warped environment, including the champion. What sets Armstrong apart is that his competitive success, fueled by illicit means and synergized with his comeback from cancer, made it possible for him to transcend cycling and reap greater profits than anyone else.”

Ponzi scheme. Comparing a truly illegal practice against one that is not a crime is a common tactic in these arguments. Ford dismisses the lack of a positive test against Armstrong, saying these calls are “meritless” because some of the witnesses against him:

” . . . as a group over time used banned substances and methods on hundreds of occasions. They avoided being busted partly due to luck, partly due to strategic planning by doctors and trainers, and partly due to the warnings they got about testing itself.”

This raises the issue of why years-ago allegations, in a time of less sophisticated testing technology and easier methods of avoiding detection, should even be investigated now, and especially since the full timeline of the Armstrong case predates the creation of USADA. Argues former pro cyclist and current TV analyst John Eustice in one of the few major dissents on this matter:

“It’s a waste of time and money to prosecute seasoned pros – of any sport— for past doping offenses. It is already too late and the guys are damaged goods, having been initiated into doping culture at a young age. The only way to change the culture is to focus on developing, and most importantly, educating and closely monitoring young riders in clean, healthy athletic habits. As, ironically, we’ve successfully done in cycling over the past five years. It takes time, does not garner scintillating headlines, but is the only way.”

How far back should the backdating go? What parameters should USADA observe in probing doping? Why is public money being used to investigate individuals and organizations not accused of violating any federal, state or local laws?

Ford and other leading media observers are silent on those topics, suggesting that those who aren’t fully on board with them are walking around with blinders on. But this isn’t really the case; it’s not a matter of believing Armstrong anymore, but to fear where the War on Steroids is headed. The USADA has bagged its biggest catch without having to prove a single thing, which is something quite different than posting documents on a website and getting leading journalists to declare “case closed.”

The most appalling analysis I’ve read comes from Associated Press columnist John Leicester, who also fashions himself as a truth-teller in refuting diehard Armstrong fanatics:

“To worry about how the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency managed to bring down one of the biggest sports icons, whether U.S. taxpayer dollars should have been spent on schools rather than trawling through the past, and whether it even had the power to reduce such a giant to a speck, feels trivial in the bare light-bulb glare of USADA’s findings.

“The means, fair or foul, appear justified by the ends and by the hope — and it can be only hope at this point — that this is as low as any sport can sink and that cycling could maybe build a healthier future from here, if the cancer of doping is truly excised.”

Here’s the hot-white blind fanaticism of the anti-doping zealots, in two easy-to-digest paragraphs, laid totally bare. If USADA needs anyone to write its press releases in the future, here’s the man to do it.

This is a bristling, arrogant affront to more than Armstrong partisans, but also to anyone who values process, and its transparency, perhaps even more than the result. That’s not trivial at all.

Our culture has become so hysterical about doping in sports that scrutiny of those who have launched the War on Steroids is practically non-existent. Willfully so, as Leicester illustrates.

Anyone who does care about the sport of cycling and any other sport that comes under the province of USADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency or any other sports entity with the power to investigate, police and punish alleged dopers ought to care about the means by which this is done.

If more crackdowns on doping are to come — and the USADA now enjoys virtually unchallenged public goodwill and a free pass from the media — it’s imperative that the ends should never justify the means.

It’s the very principle that Armstrong is alleged to have flouted in the first place.

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