In Defense of Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong

Posted on October 22, 2012

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Lance Armstrong was a professional cyclist.  Then he got testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs, abdomen, and brain.  He lost the testicle.  He underwent brain surgery.  He endured chemo.  He was given a 40% chance of survival.  And then he went back to professional cycling, and won big.  He was an inspiration.  He used his fame to found an anti-cancer charity, LiveStrong.

Now, in the wake of doping accusations, some donors are pulling away from the charity.  They are wrong.

Some folks are making the logical mistake of conflating Lance Armstrong the charity founder with Lance Armstrong the accused doper; and in so doing, they are apparently conflating the actual charity with Armstrong’s cycling career.

Yes, yes, there is only one Lance Armstrong.  But people are not flat, unidimensional  caricatures whose every act is subsumed by every other act, leaving us as homogenized blobs of good or evil.  Amazingly enough, most of us do a lot of good things and a lot of bad things in our lives.  One does not negate the other.

Here’s someone laboring under some faulty logic:  Eric Martin, who works for a strategic consulting firm, says that LiveStrong will have to “re-establish the authenticity of their cause” by focusing on “real-world heroes who have faced down cancer while loving a sport more than the spotlight.”  Whoa, there.  Isn’t LiveStrong about helping cancer patients?  Are we saying that LiveStrong cancer patients are somehow no longer “authentic”?  And if the complaint is that Armstrong is now somehow insufficiently “inspiring” to other cancer patients, think again:  what he accomplished, even if he did it while doping, is hard as hell.  Post-cancer, he has clocked thousands of grueling training hours and miles in all kinds of weather and tough terrain.  Doping or not, that’s pretty damned impressive for anyone, much less someone who had a 40% chance of survival and doctors pulling necrotic tumors out of his brain just a few years before.

Here’s another:  donor Connie Roddy, who was inspired by Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike:  My Journey Back to Life.  Says Roddy:  “I was just so taken with who he said he was.”  Now, in the wake of the doping scandal, Roddy wants tens of thousands of dollars in donations back.  “I feel we were really fooled. We were really hoodwinked,” she said.  This makes little sense.  Roddy donated to a cancer charity.  Armstrong is a real, live, honest-to-God cancer survivor.  His charity helps other real, live, honest-to-God cancer sufferers.   To ask for cancer donations to be returned on the basis of a cycling scandal is tantamount to saying, “Oh, I’m sorry.  I only donate money to cancer sufferers who have a real hero speaking for them.  Not you losers who were getting your help from this guy.”

LiveStrong is an organization, not a man.  Its mission is helping cancer patients, not the personal glorification of its founder.  And as charities go, it actually does a pretty good job of putting donor money to work for its cause:  82% of its expenses went to programs, 11% to fundraising, and only 5% to administrative costs.   Nike and Anheuser-Busch have the right of it:  they have both dropped Armstrong, but they plan to continue supporting LiveStrong.  And that is as it should be.  Donations to cancer programs should not be predicated upon the athletic glory or shame of a mere spokesman.  And if you were only donating because of who you thought the spokesman was… you were donating for the wrong reason.

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