Cycling

Why Nike really dumped Lance

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Nike continued to back Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, even Joe Paterno. So let’s not applaud too much for a company taking a moral stand Wednesday by dumping Lance Armstrong.

It happened only a few minutes after Armstrong resigned as chairman of his Livestrong charity.

This could be the biggest fall from grace ever for an athlete, certainly the longest fall from the highest heights. But let’s put the credit where it goes: I’m not going to believe for one minute that Nike did this because it believes Armstrong is a cheater.

No, Nike dumped Armstrong because you think he’s a cheater. Nike made a business decision, and also a Nike-image decision.

But you were the one who did it, sports fans. You stood up for sports, for your beliefs, for standards. You kicked Lance Armstrong to the curb. And know this: It’s over for him now. He is done endorsing products, at least until he asks someone to forgive him.

Nike didn’t make a moral decision, unless you are counting business morals. The numbers just don’t add up anymore. Armstrong will not give Nike a return on its investment. So suddenly, the shoe company that thought it was OK to back Paterno after he had done less than the bare minimum to stop a child rapist, has decided that it was morally outraged by a lying doping cheat.

“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 said in a statement. “Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in any manner.’’

For the record, Nike never cut Alex Rodriguez’s contract.

Armstrong played us all along, of course. Almost everyone knows that now. And when the allegations grew and grew, he continued to blame his accusers, point fingers at them. They were cheats. They were in it for money. They were in it for glory, or for spite, or for whatever.

I’d like to know what Armstrong was in this for. But the more he pointed fingers, the more Armstrong masterfully divided people. His defenders went stronger and stronger to his defense.

Lance Armstrong

LOOKING BACK

Lance Armstrong's career highlights may be tainted, but they're still worth remembering.

When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency came out last week with all the evidence, all the allegations from his former teammates, well, it was just too overwhelming. The USADA described it as the most sophisticated doping scheme in recent sports history.

Armstrong said he wasn’t going to fight back anymore.

You lost faith in him. Nike gave up.

The evidence made Armstrong look like more than just a doping cheat. He allegedly bullied his teammates to support him, threatened them, insisted they cheat, too.

So which one is Armstrong? The doping cheat or the guy who beat cancer and came back to support cancer victims and offer them hope?

Look, humans are complex. Armstrong can be both. He did great things, he did terrible things. We look too easily for labels. Good people do bad things sometimes. Bad people do good.

Armstrong still denies cheating. He wants you to believe that everyone around him was cheating, but not him. All of his teammates were cheating without his knowledge?

Nah, the number of believers don’t add up for him anymore. His deny, deny, deny approach worked for a long time, but not anymore. It turns out that Armstrong is the biggest sports cheat in history, based on how he had billed himself. He’s worse than the 1919 White Sox and Shoeless Joe Jackson, who portrayed themselves as ballplayers, not saints.

The moral? No moral. Sometimes you get caught. Roger Clemens denied, denied, denied, and the Astros were still thinking of letting him pitch a few weeks ago.

Armstrong becomes the new symbol for a generation of athletes. Baseball cheats, football, whatever. Armstrong is their leader now.

It’s funny: When his seven Tour de France titles are finally, officially stripped, race officials say they won’t name replacement winners. Everyone who finished in second or third during his Tour wins has either been busted for doping, too, or heavily accused.

It’s the perfect end for the entire era of cycling, leaving seven years of the sport’s biggest event blank.

But I want to get back to something else. Nike originally announced that it was standing by Armstrong. This week, the New York Daily News started questioning if Nike was involved in the Armstrong cover-up all along.

The newspaper noted that one of Armstrong’s critics, Kathy LeMond, wife of cyclist Greg LeMond, testified under oath during a 2006 deposition that Nike paid cycling officials $500,000 to cover up a positive drug test. Nike denies the claim.

But Nike is doing now what businesses do. Protecting its brand.

Protecting it from Lance Armstrong. You thought it loved Lance Armstrong all those years? Sure. Business love.

If only Armstrong had had a little more sense from the start. At some point, he needed to just admit it. He needed to say that he was wrong and he was sorry. The media would have pointed out that everyone else in the sport was cheating, too.

And then some of the bullying and threats never would have come out. Armstrong could have still re-built his image, and his name.

His arrogance did him in as much as his cheating. Now, his name lies face-first in the gutter.

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