Lance Armstrong was scratched from the Tour de France record books on Monday, but he’s still a “7-time Tour de France winner” according to his Twitter handle.
Deny, deny, deny has long been the embattled cyclist’s strategy in the face of doping allegations, but after being stripped of his titles Monday and cast out of the sport forever, some analysts say the 41-year-old retired cyclist should do himself a favour and come clean.
“Go for the quick bleed rather than the slow hemorrhage,” said Chris Anderson, a crisis-management expert at The Marketing Arm in Dallas. “Tell it all. Tell it fast. Start rebuilding your reputation now, not in five or 10 years.”
On what he called a “landmark day” for cycling, Pat McQuaid, the head of the sport’s governing body, said Monday that the American had been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life after causing “the greatest crisis ever in the sport.”
He said that the International Cycling Union would not appeal against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency judgment that exposed the scale of Armstrong’s cheating and banned the Texan for life.
“This is the story of a real talent who lost his way,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme added Monday, saying the race would go winless during the Armstrong era from 1999-2005.
But the story’s ending will be kinder to Armstrong if he confesses, said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute.
“You can’t put the worst of it behind you until you really fall on your sword.”
From Bill Clinton to Kobe Bryant to Tiger Woods, public apologies have catalyzed the comebacks of numerous disgraced politicians and athletes who have faced embarrassing scandals.
Still, cheating on your wife may be more forgivable than cheating on the playing field in the eyes of the average sports fan.
“Any time you’re responsible for the loss in integrity in the sport in which you play, you do have a longer comeback, because it just cuts to the very spirit of competition,” Carter said.
“A lot of fans will compartmentalize what an athlete does off the field. They forgive and forget and they move on. But if it cuts right to the integrity of competition, I think fans and sponsors – especially sponsors that are close to sports – don’t want to have their brand affiliated with an athlete that doesn’t respect the game.”
Many disgraced athletes who have been caught cheating in sport and never really regained the public’s respect, such as sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, and professional baseball star Barry Bonds. And Armstrong’s case goes beyond just being an individual cheat: he’s alleged to have been a ringleader who pressured his teammates to take banned substances.
Still, the athletes who confess are often treated better than those who do not, said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a sports business consulting firm in Chicago.
Compare Bonds and Mark McGwire, Ganis said. Both sluggers were ensnared in steroid scandals. Bonds insisted on his innocence, and was eventually indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to a grand jury during the U.S. federal government’s investigation of BALCO, by testifying that he never knowingly took any illegal steroids.
McGwire also refused to confess for years, evading tough questioning in his testimony before the U.S. Congress. He eventually came clean in 2010, although in large part because he wanted a job as a hitting coach with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Except for a small pocket in San Francisco, [Bonds] will always be a pariah. Mark McGuire came clean, and he’s now back in baseball. I’m not saying he’s beloved, but he at least has some redemption about him,” Ganis said.
Armstrong has already suffered huge financial consequences in recent weeks. Oakley, the last major sponsor to stand by Armstrong, dropped him on Monday, adding to a long list of companies such as Nike that have ditched the rider in recent weeks.
Patrick Rishe, a sports economist and associate professor of economics at Webster University, estimates that Armstrong stands to lose between $150-million to $200-million (all currency U.S.) in endorsements and speaking deals over the next decade. (Forbes estimated he earned $17.5-million in endorsements and speaking deals in 2010).
Rishe says it’s unlikely Armstrong can ever come close to his former earning potential, because even having the whiff of cheating about you can be enough to turn off sponsors.
Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, a nonprofit charity watchdog group, added that Armstrong is, “stretching out the controversy by continuing to deny.”
“What the charity needs to do is disengage from its controversial founder. And one important step would be to have Armstrong be removed from the board.”
(Armstrong stepped down as chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation but remains a member of the board)
But if the allegations are true and a mea culpa is in order, when’s the best time to do it?
Ganis believes Armstrong is actually doing the right thing by sitting tight. In the court of public opinion, a forced apology can be worse than not apologizing at all, he said.
“If you’re forced into it, there’s less a perception of a desire for forgiveness.”
His advice for Armstrong? Sever ties with the charity and any remaining sponsors, plead neither innocent or guilty, and vanish from public life for a few years.
Then phone Barbara Walters.
“After a number of years – and it is years – you come back and you make a tearful elocution in some large forum. If Oprah was still on, you’d do it on Oprah. And you hope for some positive feeling, which is likely to occur.”
The fact that he has beaten cancer and done so much to raise millions for the cause can’t hurt, he said. Plus, he added: “We in North America are a forgiving society. There are many Bill Clintons out there. We do believe in absolution.”