I’m more than a little troubled by what has happened with the Lance Armstrong case. I’ll begin by saying that I don’t know if Armstrong is guilty of doping. If it were proven that he were I wouldn’t be surprised – his accomplishments are simply remarkable, and to have done it all in a sport where apparently every single participant was juicing, that would be the most spectacular accomplishment in sporting history.
If he were somehow proven to be clean (impossible, I know – can’t prove that you didn’t do something), that would be believable, as well. It would certainly jive with all the actual evidence at hand. Most tested athlete in history, and as I understand it the only positive test was later ruled out by a negative B sample. And as for that “most spectacular accomplishment in sporting history” thing? There are plenty of other athletes who have defied logic. Michael Phelps is a freak of nature. Bob Beamon must have had a rocket pack in his shorts. Usain Bolt? Sweet hell, he wins Olympic gold medals skipping the last 20 meters backward.
So I have no bias, no dogmatic faith in either side of the argument. I understand the suspicion, and I also understand those wary of the suspicions. For instance, I’ve heard people compare Armstrong to Barry Bonds. Fair enough. Both men posted outlandish performances in an era of rampant Performance Enhancing Drug abuse. It would be impossible for a thinking person to look at the situation and not wonder.
On the other hand, Barry Bonds never passed 500 of the most advanced drug tests of the era. Lance Armstrong never admitted to using the “cream” and the “clear.” And while both men were targets of federal investigations, Bonds was charged and convicted while Armstrong was not. And suspicion isn’t evidence.
As I say, there are arguments to be made on both sides of the question. But today’s post isn’t about that. What bugs me this morning really has little to do with Armstrong per se. Stick with me here.
Many folks make what I see as a credible case that he was very likely guilty.
Yesterday on ESPN radio one of their sports talkers pointed to the fact that the US Anti-Doping Agency had ten former teammates prepared to testify that Armstrong was guilty. He asked a question: are we supposed to believe that these people have all lined up a perfect conspiracy to lie about their former team leader? What motive would they have?
That’s a good question. But good questions aren’t the same as conclusive proof. And it’s a good question that has some good answers:
- As for conspiracies, they had heretofore all lined behind the position that Lance was clean, yes? So if you can unanimously endorse a point in circumstances like this, why can’t you unanimously endorse the opposite point?
- What do we make of ten witnesses who go from insisting that he didn’t do it to saying yeah, he did in such wonderfully synchronized lock-step? Am I the only one suspicious of that?
- By the way, when it comes to conspiracies, it’s harder to hold together the lie because you have to have everybody correctly remembering made-up details. It’s easier to get everyone correctly remembering what actually happened. Something to ponder. The earlier unanimous conspiracy was holding together pretty well because it was supported by evidence.
- As for no motive, on the contrary. These guys had all admitted to cheating. No telling what kind of bullying the USADA was resorting to, but it probably included a threat to ban them for life. Like they’re doing Armstrong. And the ADA appears to operate without oversight, so yeah, I see a motive.
- Finally, as for the idea that it isn’t plausible for all these witnesses to just make stuff up (despite the fact that they have evidently been doing just that until recently), let me reply with a question of my own: how plausible is the testimony of ten coerced witnesses when it is directly contradicted by years and years of physical evidence?
The other argument the ESPN host offered was that often cheaters have an advantage in that rule-breaking technology necessarily runs ahead of the reactive technology required to catch the cheaters. This is true. In the computer world, for instance, you don’t release the fix for a virus before the virus itself is created. Medical science doesn’t cure diseases that haven’t manifested yet. Same for doping. Somebody comes up with a new way to cheat, and then the establishment has to find a way to catch them. Good argument.
Except that it’s purely speculative. It cannot be demonstrated with evidence. And we do not convict based on an assumption that you’re too good, so you must be cheating. Also, our anti-doping technology has caught up with older practices, and I believe old samples still exist, so you should be able to apply 2012 policing tech to 2003 cheating tech and prove guilt if there were any, right?
If I’m factually off on this, I invite you to correct me, but I’m making a good faith argument based on what I believe is accurate information.
Finally – and here’s the part that really bothers me – Armstrong had to make a decision about his willingness to commit millions of dollars to permanent war against the USADA. If anything in all this was clear, it was that the ADA was never going to stop hounding him. Ever. They had adopted, as a fundamental plank of their operational dogma, the self-evident truth that Armstrong was guilty and issued a fatwa against him. After hundreds of tests failed to find him at fault, they changed their tactics: since we can’t prove that you’re guilty, we’re going to ban you unless you can prove you’re innocent.
Wait – what?
At the risk of sounding inflammatory, welcome to the gulag, comrade. Even after a 20-month federal investigation failed to charge Armstrong, the ADA forged ahead. And let’s make no mistake here. Federal investigators are the gold standard. They do not fuck around and they very rarely get it wrong. By comparison, the USADA is a clown college. More specifically, a clown college that is not bound by concepts like due process and innocent-until-proven-guilty.
They were going to keep coming until they got Armstrong. The fact that he was innocent by their own criteria – you know, all those negative tests? – seemingly did nothing but strengthen their conviction that he was guilty. Every time Armstrong won, they would come back with another attack. Each attack required a great deal in the way of legal expenditures, and despite the fact that LA is a rich guy, a) the money wouldn’t last forever, and b) is this really how you want to spend your life and your fortune when there are other causes out there (cancer research, for instance) that matter so dearly to you?
Lance could have won ten more battles before he died, and on the day after he was buried the USADA would have declared victory and stripped him of his medals.
I’m glad we don’t live in a society where the criminal law system works like the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Think about it.
- No real due process
- No double-jeopardy restrictions
- If you demonstrate your innocence via the established standards, that only proves that you’re really guilty
- No need for probable cause – “you’re a lot better than everybody else” is sufficient
- Suspicion = conviction
- No oversight, no checks and balances
This is what bothers me so much this morning. It isn’t whether or not Armstrong is actually guilty, a question that I’m honestly unsure about. In my gut, I suspect he probably broke some rules. But in a court of law, could I possibly vote to convict? How could I? Ten compromised witnesses against literally hundreds of physical evidence exhibits? No thanks.
In the end, this just feels like such a contravention of the principles that the American system was founded on. It isn’t about Lance, it’s about the USADA. If it were the Soviet Russia ADA or the Sharia ADA or the Westboro Baptist ADA or the Cardassian ADA, I’d shrug and say sure, that’s how they roll. Cynical and nationalistic of me? Maybe.
But like I say, I’m bothered that we have this kind of organization in the United States, one that relies on what amounts to spite and divine revelation in its jihads against whoever it decides to hate.
Yes, I’m mad. Whatever crimes Lance Armstrong has committed, he’s more than paid for. But the USADA has taken a scalp in a way that flies in the face of every principle of justice and fair play I have ever believed in, and that’s simply not acceptable. It grates against everything I believe in as an American, and it ought to concern you, too.
Image Credit: Pepe’s Non-Smoking Party Lounge