Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Lance Armstrong debacle could matter to motorcycle racers

UPDATE FEB. 23 I note that the Federal government has, in fact, attached itself to a civil "whistleblower" suit filed by Floyd Landis. Floyd Landis probably does deserve a settlement from Armstrong, who vilified him for telling the truth. USPS wanting their $30 million back? That's preposterous. As Armstrong's lawyers point out (with apparent irony) Armstrong's cheating dramatically increased the ROI on their sponsorship. If, long after the fact, sponsors are to come after athletes who fall from favor, the whole economics of sponsor-funded sport is called into question.
If the posts that show up on my Facebook feed are any indication, most motorcyclists are also bicyclists. In fact, ex-racers in particular seem to put in as many human-powered miles as they do gasoline-powered ones. I know I do.

I suppose that could make them pay attention to Lance Armstrong's mea culpa with Oprah.

So far, the best post I've seen about Lance Armstrong comes from my friend Steve Hodgson, who may be confused about exactly what kind of drugs Armstrong was using. Steve's story is, I believe, true.  The canal was in Amsterdam, IIRC, and you can draw your own conclusions about the drugs involved...
I won't detail my own position on Armstrong's sporting ethics. Suffice to say, I'm pretty certain that his drug use was approximately enough to level the field. That's not an excuse; I don't like him, and I don't mind seeing him punished -- not for his drug use, per se, but for his vehement, holier-than-thou denials and the pattern of bullying and intimidation that he used to silence his critics and would-be whistleblowers for so long.

But here's why this story is more than marginally related to motorsports...

Several of Armstrong's sponsors are now threatening to sue him, to recoup money they paid him in sponsorship fees and performance bonuses, dating back several years.

That's utter bullshit. For starters, cheating was(is?) rampant because of the money pumped into the sport by sponsors, generally. And Armstrong's incredible win streak, which would have been impossible without cheating, is what turned him from a niche-sport athlete who would have been known only to fellow bicyclists into a mainstream figure who greatly multiplied the value of his sponsors' investments, specifically.

I doubt these suits have merit. Surely, any judge should demand to see evidence that, now that Armstrong's admitted that he cheated, the brands that sponsored him have been harmed. Will the United States Postal Service really go to court and argue that there are customers who've just switched to UPS for deliveries, because the USPS sponsored a cheater ten years ago? These lawsuits are just cheap tricks by sponsors desperate for any publicity they can get -- even this tainted shit -- and they should be thrown out.

But, as the old joke goes...
Question: What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 50? 
Answer: Your honor.

Imagine that Armstrong's sponsors do successfully sue him. The consequences for other sponsorship-driven sports like motorcycle racing would be terrible. You think cheating's rampant in bicycle racing? Not any more so than it is in our sport, where for years its been assumed that if you're not cheating, you're not really trying.

Racers and teams would have to carry a liability for years. The same sponsors who put huge pressure on them to win -- and who reap the benefits of brand exposure when they do win -- would sue to get their money back if they'd been found to be cheating even years later. At the very least, teams would have to insure themselves against that risk.

While it's hard to really imagine a cyclist being doped without his knowledge (they're not former East-bloc weightlifters, after all) the team principal of a big motorsport team might not even know if cheating was taking place.

How might that happen?..

Rossi returns to Yamaha this year, at a time when Dorna is acutely aware that MotoGP's attendance is falling. Bridgestone's made a huge investment in its MotoGP program, and it obviously knows that if Rossi returns to winning form, MotoGP exposure will increase, as will every stakeholder's ROI. It's easy to imagine Bridgestone giving Rossi tires that are slightly better than everyone else's (but, of course, visually identical.)

Years later, when some Bridgestone race shop chemist makes a deathbed confession, Monster comes back and says, "Return our money."

Every sponsorship contract has 'morality' clauses that allow sponsors to terminate agreements if athletes or teams behave disreputably. That's reasonable. Allowing sponsors to plead ignorance and launch faux-indignant holier-than-thou lawsuits long after the fact is ridiculous.

Cheating in bicycle racing? The horror! The disingenuous faux-outrage of sponsors like USPS, now threatening to sue over Armstrong's admission of cheating long ago poses a larger threat to all sponsorship-driven sport. What's next? Will Monster want money back when some sponsored motorcycle fails a post-race technical inspection?

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