Thrill of Victory

Lessons from Lance Armstrong: when somebody cheats, everybody loses

First, it was the 2005 Heisman Trophy.

Then, it was the 2004 BCS national title.

Now, it’s the 1999 to 2005 Tour de France races.

What do those three have in common? As of this week, there’s a blank spot next to each one of them in the record books. The final came earlier this week, as Lance Armstrong was formally stripped of his seven Tour de France titles by the International Cycling Union, a result of over 1,000 pages of testimony from 26 people, including 15 cyclists, that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs during that time.

To quote U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart to USA Today earlier this week, “The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

And so the book is finally closed on Armstrong, who’s been dogged with allegations of doping for years now.

And where does that leave us?

With a record book full of blank pages, evidently.

According to Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, the race will not elevate the runners-up to champion status because, as so many people have said for so long, everyone in cycling was doping.

“Those dark years must be marked by the absence of a winner,” Prudhomme said.

Last year, college football went through a similar scandal when Southern Cal was stripped of its 2004 BCS national title, which it won for beating Oklahoma, 55-19. The BCS, too, chose a path similar to the ICUs, choosing to leave the title vacated.

“It leaves a real void, and there is always a question of whether someone deserved that trophy,” Grant Teaff, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, which gives its national championship to the BCS title game winner, told the New York Times last June. “And the simple answer is this is a trophy that goes to the winner of the BCS championship, and as of today, there was no winner of that ballgame.”

Interestingly enough, the Associated Press chose not to take its title from that season away from the Trojans. Southern Cal athletic director Pat Haden said then that the school would still recognize the AP honor as a national title, but we all know the truth: Southern Cal won illicitly with help from a player who shouldn’t have been eligible. That’s Reggie Bush, who was (not coincidentally) the former owner of that vacated Heisman.

Different leagues and agencies handle things differently. Where cycling said, “Everybody’s cheating, so nobody’s performance counts,” Major League Baseball evidently concluded, with regards to the Steroid Era, that, “Since everybody’s cheating, everyone’s stats count.” Witness the fact that not a single home run from Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire has been erased from history, even though there’s little doubt that both of them cheated as much as Armstrong did.

That the AP chose to give USC its title, or that MLB didn’t expunge anyone’s records from the Steroid Era, does nothing to change any of the facts. All it proves is that we as a society deal with similar matters in vastly different ways. My opinion is that the BCS, the ICU and the Heisman Trophy Trust mostly handled things appropriately, though if I were the BCS, I think I’d have awarded the title to Oklahoma, and the Heisman Trust, to 2005-runner-up Vince Young.

But at the end of the day, neither approach really solved much. We’ll never know what the legitimate outcomes of any of these events or seasons would have been. What’s the point of sports when there are no champions?

And that’s the real tragedy of these events: when somebody cheats, it’s not just Lance Armstrong, or Southern Cal, or Reggie Bush that loses. It’s all of us – athletes, teams, and fans alike.