Lance Armstrong: Death of a brand…or fall of an idol?

I was hesitant to weigh on on the Lance Armstrong debacle for a variety of reasons. My husband, an avid cyclist, can’t even bear to watch the taped Oprah interview that sits on our DVR – and I’ll admit, I haven’t watched it all the way through myself. I’ve sat by and read the tweets, the comments, the passionate defenses, the harsh rebukes. And I waited….

But Lance Armstrong is a brand, and so I feel compelled to say…well, something. People have been asking me.

I’m no expert on the events that lead us here. I don’t follow cycling the way my husband does.  In my house, I didn’t comment a few weeks ago when I glanced into the trash to see some Armstrong socks tossed among the food scraps. Instead, I teared up. And as Armstrong’s yellow jersey was torn open to reveal the ugly guts of a drastically different man – and brand – we all thought we knew, I can merely make some observations for you to think about when it comes to personal brands.

Here’s the deal: Lance Armstrong cheated and lied. Period. For all his defenders, it’s no excuse to say “Everyone does it” or “But look at all the good he’s done.” He lied and cheated, yes, but it also doesn’t take away from all the good that the amazing LIVESTRONG charity does for cancer patients…and which I hope it continues to do. It doesn’t detract from how Armstrong inspired and motivated millions of people over the years. No one is saying that.

All it says is that this man, held up to showcase what hard work, determination and the human spirit can accomplish…this man, it turns out, is a liar. But what impacts the brand for me is not just that. People make mistakes, they lie when they are backed into a corner. But Armstrong went beyond. He not just lied, he slandered. He bullied people into getting into the muck with him, and those who wanted to do the right thing or tell the truth. He branded people liars and frauds. He sued people who were telling the truth and won. He ruined careers, lives. All in an effort to save his own skin and keep the lie going. Keep the brand and the myth alive.

Apologies are common in our media world today. And many are willing to forgive. Hugh Grant bounced back from his hooker escapade. Eliot Spitzer got a new media career after his public scandal. Michael Vick continues a successful football career after running dog fighting rings. People have even forgotten about Ray Lewis, linebacker for the Super Bowl contending Baltimore Ravens, and his homicide plea deal so long ago. Forgiveness, a comeback, a new lease on life. As long as someone pays their debt and apologizes, we as humans love a good redemption story.

But my problem lies with the trail of hurt, lies, bullying, and selfishness that Armstrong leaves behind. Some say the bullying and intimidation leaves deeper scars than the lies. And he destroyed not just anyone, but people he once called friends. Given what is now revealed about him (note: many who follow cycling closely always kind of suspected he might not be the nicest of men), I can only assume this mea culpa comes not from wanting to do the right thing, but wanting to single-mindedly compete again and perhaps regain some lost endorsements. Time will tell.

Former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu has this to say on ESPN Radio: “Anybody that crossed his path or didn’t go along with his plan, he set out to take them down. And he was very powerful and influential and did take them down,”

Gotta love that trademark determination, no?

Before you lynch me, I am well aware everyone has their motives. I don’t believe everyone whistleblows out of the goodness of their hearts, nor do I believe this is the first or last we’ll hear of illegal performance enhancement in cycling – or any sport. But those issues do not justify the choices Armstrong has made, the brazen lies he told, how he’s hurt and destroyed people or most importantly, how he has let us down. Especially those who publicly defended him.

Mostly, we as a society are tired of seeing idols and heroes fall. I know I am. The whole thing just makes me very, very sad. Not angry, not judgemental. Just sad. I experienced the same thing when OSU coach Jim Tressel fell from grace. And even over the debates about Joe Paterno’s actions at Penn State. Sadness.

This is the inherent danger with building a personal brand or tying a brand so closely to a human being. The operative word being human.  You have to accept the person foibles, misjudgments, vanity and all. While sponsors dropped Armstrong like hotcakes, it’s sort of too little, too late. The damage is done, the name tarnished for all time.

I hope LIVESTRONG can survive…and I think it will. If anything, people are more determined to ensure it does. No one can take away all the good Armstrong’s celebrity, backing,  influence and committment made to cancer research and survivors everywhere. I’m glad some good came out of his relentless quest for success.  And I admire the guy for surviving and thriving after cancer. I really do.

The Armstrong brand may well survive. But the man has fallen in our eyes and I don’t know if he can ever come back. Another hero lost to reality. Another inspiration who has let us down like children who’ve been told there is no Santa Claus.

And yet. And yet…..I don’t want to stop believing in future heroes that will surely come our way. No matter how many times I get hurt. Do you?

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. According to this CNN article, “In place of a record seven wins by Lance Armstrong, the chronicles of the Tour de France bear seven record vacancies.” The records now show, in essence, that no one won.

How fitting.

What is your take on the Armstrong legacy and brand? Do you think the charity will survive? Do you think he’ll make a real comeback? Please share in the Comments below, I’d love to know what you think!

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