Lance Armstrong Cover - Sports Illustrated June 28, 2004Barry Bonds Cover - Sports Illustrated March 15, 2004

Remembering the Summer of 2004

Lance Armstrong will not contest USADA’s charges of his alleged doping and is set to be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. This comes eight years after David Walsh wrote L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong” that went unpublished and categorically dismissed by an American sports media hell bent on investigating Barry Bonds.

David Walsh tells Cyclingnews:

“I’m pleased that it’s come to this and that he’s accepted the charges against him. I’m disappointed that it didn’t go to arbitration because that would have given us the details as to why this process was so necessary,” 

“For me it’s a good day in at least that some guy who has been incredibly cynical has his just desserts. But the investigation should really be much deeper than Lance Armstrong. Who are the people who protected him?”

While Walsh is referring to the sport of cycling itself, he may as well have been referring to mainstream sports media in America. “The Case Against Lance Armstrong” did not begin in 2010 [1] when American media finally began its mandatory-minimum coverage. It began over a decade ago and was largely relegated to foreign press or domestic blogs. But instead of igniting further investigations, follow-up book projects, and cover story excerpts like Barry Bonds, a decade-long mainstream media narrative ensued where “the French”, “the European press”, and later Floyd Landis were assigned the villainous role of Jose Canseco. 

Less easy to dismiss was the harsh criticism by former American cycling legend Greg Lemond who defied convenient narratives. Lemond was a 3-Time Tour de France Champion, Sports Illustrated 1989 Sportsman of the Year, and loved by French fans. Instead, “ignore-the-messenger” replaced “shoot-the-messenger” as the “sports feud of the decade” went largely unreported or under-reported by most national media.

Considering sports media’s love affair with milking black-on-black criticism, one might imagine the media firestorm had Hank Aaron made the following statements about Barry Bonds:

“Lance is ready to do anything to keep his secret. I don’t know how he can continue to convince everybody of his innocence.”  — Greg Lemond in 2004

By 2006, a myriad of doping allegations against Lance Armstrong also included failed EPO tests in 1999. While testimony from ex-teammates  and ex-assistants implicating Armstrong were dismissed as accusatory hearsay, The “Game of Shadows” book excerpt in sports Illustrated helps make the case against Barry Bonds by citing spurned ex-lover Kimberly Bell’s name 32 times. Not all San Francisco Chronicle reporters were joining in the hypocrisy.  In 2005, Gwen Knapp writes:

“Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong have too much in common for them to be treated so differently. Either both should be presumed clean and accorded full admiration for their athletic accomplishments, or both should be presumed highly suspicious superstars in a doped-up sports world.”  – Lance: Teflon Doper?

Unfortunately, Gwen Knapp was a rare voice — and a rare woman — in a field dominated by white men who are far less likely to tarnish their idols — whether they are named Lance Armstrong or Joe Paterno. Perhaps no single writer was more symbolic of this Armstrong-as-God  and Bonds-as-evil dichotomy than former Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly. Go back and read his columns of both men, and you will be astonished at the love vs. hate. 

It is also critical to distinguish that Reilly — harshness aside — was not the exception, but the general rule. Rick Reilly was an 11-time National Sports Writer of the Year which came from recognition by his admiring peers. Even in 2010, the year when Armstrong’s doping was finally being investigated by American sports media[1], Reilly (now with ESPN) would stick to his denial: 

“Until [“we find proof that Lance doped”], doesn’t Armstrong deserve the benefit of the doubt? A man who’s worked tirelessly for and inspired people you know, people in your life, people who don’t even know yet that they will need him for inspiration? A man who, right in front of your eyes, is trying to make calendars stop turning? Doesn’t he deserve at least that?” — Lance Armstrong Keeps Passing Tests 

 In Reilly’s denial, we find three levels of white male privilege regularly employed by sports media:

1) “The Passing-the-Test Test” never applied to Mr. Bonds;

2) “The Death Row Standard”: a level of proof never given to Bonds — or even death-row inmate Troy Davis for that matter (executed last year after seven witnesses recanted testimony)

3) “The Cancer Defense” — a humanitarian shield that never protected charitable giants such as Stephon Marbury or Tiger Woods.

While Lance’s cancer survivor story will understandably delude many fans, the standard for sports media is expected to be a bit higher.
The privilege of Lance Armstrong’s whiteness played a role. The power of his corporate sponsors — often in partnership with sports media — played a role. These elements of white and green cannot be separated from each other. Armstrong’s story-telling from 2001-2006 also can’t be separated from a post-9-11 anti-french political current that ran through many of his Pat-Tillmanesque articles (check Reilly again). 
Now that Armstrong has finally refused to be investigated and will likely to be stripped of his titles, it is time for the real investigation on the widespread media protection of him to begin.
After “LA Confidential” and “From Lance to Landis“, perhaps such a sports media expose could be David Walsh’s next project. Perhaps it might even get published in America.

[1] Mainstream American media did not seriously investigate Armstrong until 2010 with a notable   which ran an investigative article series  by The Wall Street Journal, and Men’s Journal with “The Case Against Lance Armstrong”. 

[2]Besides Barry Bonds vs. Hank Aaron, a few examples of national media milking black-on-black criticism include “Jalen Rose vs. Grant Hill” getting daily coverage for three weeks, “T.O. vs. McNabb” for three years (but not the reconciliation), and Isiah vs. Jordan “freeze-out” for three decades. Greg Lemond and his decade of criticism has largely been reduced to local media such as the New York Daily News. Greg Lemond; Greg Lemond  


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