We had an interesting weekend discussing the USADA sanctions against Lance Armstrong this weekend. I appreciated hearing everyone's position whether you left it on this blog, on Facebook, or came in to discuss it personally at the shop. Armstrong's current situation is clearly not good for cycling, and it's going to be interesting to watch how events continue to play out.
The disturbing thing, for me at least, is that there seem to be a lot of rules getting broken by all the agencies involved. The situation is actually so corrupt, that the actual discussion of Armstrong's innocence or guilt is currently not even relevant (it's like item 546 on the agenda). I'm also irritated with how misleading all the media reporting on this situation is.
Maybe it's because I'm the son of a lawyer, but for me, the most important point in any controversy is that the government agencies that have been established to maintain order follow their stated protocols. I'd much prefer to see a guilty athlete go free than have an innocent one be unjustly stripped of his/her achievements. The "refs" have to be held to a higher standard and they must be completely transparent because if you allow the refs absolute power, they can retroactively declare any outcome they want.
So let's just pretend that Lance Armstrong isn't involved and just look at the actions of the USADA. I think people's strong feelings for (or against) Armstrong are clouding their ability to decide whether or not USADA is overstepping its bounds.
- USADA does not have the ability to strip athletes of international titles. This authority lies with the UCI. However, in every news story you read about this, USADA always declares that they hope the UCI will respect their decision. The way USADA words this seems something like a threat (although it's kind of a weak threat because what are they going to do?). The ironic thing is that Lance Armstrong and the UCI filed a joint suit against USADA not to pursue these doping allegations (which was thrown out of court). However, you should be able to deduce from that pairing that UCI supports Armstrong in this matter. Essentially this whole situation seems to be a matter of international politics where USADA wants to be seen as the world's supreme anti-drug agency, which they aren't. UCI gets to make the final decision here, no matter how much USADA postures in the US media.
- Statute of Limitations: Generally you can't strip an athlete of his/her achievements after 8 years. USADA alluded to this recently saying that if Armstrong had "played ball" he could have kept 5 of his tour titles (the ones outside the 8 year statute of limitations). I don't know where the USADA went to law school, but there doesn't exist a provision for them to just ignore the statute of limitations.
- Erasing all titles for a 14 year period: This part is really weird. Usually you can't just say, "everything you did for 14 years was cheating," instead you have to build a case for every single title you want to strip. It's common for athletes to lose titles but then retain others (Jan Ullrich and Alberto Contador come to mind) This universal clause thing is an extremely sloppy legal attack. In fact, it's so sloppy that the people who should be most angry are those that are convinced of Armstrong's guilt.
- "Universal Erasure" tactic not universally applied: USADA doesn't have any authority to impose sanctions on a guy like Jan Ullrich, but he makes for an interesting example of why the USADA actions are problematic. If USADA wants to say that they want to erase a guy's entire career because they have "evidence" of an instance of cheating, how do they feel about handing 3 more tour titles to Jan Ullrich? Shouldn't they recommend to the UCI to award titles to 3rd places finishers (presuming they were clean).
- Failure to release evidence: At what point did it become OK in the US to punish a guy without releasing any of the evidence against him? If they have sworn testimonies, fine, make them public. If they have drug samples, fine, show them. What's with this silence? Worst of all, what's with everybody totally happy to believe the USADA without seeing this evidence? Honestly, I think the evidence should be readily available to everybody before this even hits the papers. If you're preparing a legal defense, you have a right to hear what's going to be used against you. What's going on?
Everybody seems to be so caught up in this "the USADA 'got' Armstrong" frenzy that nobody's looking at these procedural errors. I'm totally in favor of catching cheats, but IT'S NOT OK TO CHEAT TO GET THEM! The rules are in place to protect us from unfair persecution. Sure, the downside of that is that some cheats go free. But that's a better scenario than the unlawful rewriting of history.
Everything has happened over the course of a couple days so a lot is yet to be seen. What bothers me is that there doesn't seem to be a sincere and honest pursuit of justice here, instead, it's just a sensationalized attack on a well-known public figure (even the judge that threw out Armstrong's counter-suit admitted that...and I presume he saw more of the evidence than has been available to us, although it's dangerous to presume anything).
Based on the fact that donations to Livestrong have been going through the roof, it's pretty clear that the court of public opinion has judged this to be a farce. There is a lot of chest-puffing going around and it would be nice to see some reports of actual merit. The only silver lining I see is that this whole latest assault is being so badly handled that I think this will be the last full-court press against Armstrong we'll be likely to see. After all "justice" is really driven by what people want to read. After the USADA's actions, it's going to be hard to sell newspapers with headlines about dirty cycling. It remains to be seen whether the last headline will read "UCI Elects to Allow Armstrong to Retain Titles" or "UCI Enforces USADA Recommendation to Strip Armstrong Titles." We'll just have to wait and see.
Of course, I'm left wondering, who is going to punish the USADA for their violations in this matter? Or are they above the law?