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Nike (Finally) Drops Lance Armstrong

Looks like public opinion has turned decisively against Lance Armstrong. According to a statement issued today, prime sponsor Nike (NYSE: NKE) officially terminated its contract with the cycling star.

Nike’s reversal of support for the embattled biker came after a report released yesterday indicated thatKathy LeMond–wife of that other American cycling legend Greg LeMond–testified under oath that, in a separate suit filed against Armstrong in 2006, Nike coughed up a $500,000 payoff to former Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) president Hein Verbruggen in order to cover up a positive Armstrong drug test.

Another day, another aftershock stemming from the reams of evidence made public by the USADA.

One bit of silver lining in this dark cloud: the sporting goods behemoth (and extremely spendy sponsor of countless athletes and causes) will continue supporting Lance’s Livestrong foundation:

Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner. Nike plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer.

A few now argue, in the wake of all these damning reports, that we should “keep rooting for” Armstrong because of all the good that he has done (and, by the way, everybody else cheated too). While we have the utmost sympathy for cancer survivors and appreciate the message of hope and strength that Livestrong has given them, this argument strikes us as a little bizarre.

Did most successful cyclists cheat? It would certainly appear so. But Lance’s string of Tour de France victories and his tale of personal triumph over adversity were bigger than that. Not only did he enjoy the spoils of what one economist called our “Winner-Take-All Society“; he enjoyed these successes while simultaneously taking pleasure in the bullying and ruination of others. Many boats did rise in the Lance era, but they were only tiny toys circling the Titanic–see Mike Anderson’s story of personal betrayal, for example.

We have little doubt that Armstrong will suffer further damage to his status as a favorite of big-name sponsors. Still, we cannot overestimate the shadow he now casts over his sport: Hobbyist, sport and commuter cycling is booming in the U.S., and Armstrong had a lot to do with that–no matter how unbecoming his behavior may have been.

Will the industry suffer as his profile falls? Sadly, things will almost certainly be more difficult for the crop of talented American cyclists currently trying to make its way onto a European circuit run by a UCI that has lost almost all of its credibility. Livestrong will almost certainly survive, but like every player in this sordid saga, it will never rise to previous heights.

We can’t help but think that, with a little honesty and humility, Armstrong may have weathered the scandal and emerged as a repentant sinner (America loves those stories). Sadly, that tale of redemption will never come to pass. We can forgive a cheater. But an unrepentant cheater? No way.

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