In a brilliant comedy routine from the early 1980s, Eddie Murphy plays the role of a contemporary young African-American man bragging to his friends about how he would never have been a slave. He imagines a confrontation between himself and a slave master. When the slave master gives him an order, Murphy, with over-the-top bravado, tells his oppressor to go to hell (using much cruder language). But when a savage beating by the slave master’s thugs follows, a now-docile Murphy concedes that he would be happy to bale hay or do whatever his tormenters want him to do.
Murphy’s bit helps explain why Lance Armstrong decided to end his battle with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency last week.
For the Lance-haters, the recent news yielded a smirking sense of vindication. There is, after all, something in the American psyche that sanctifies extreme success — especially when it is associated with extreme adversity — but also suspects that it cannot be attained without a hoodlum’s muscle.
Overseas, Armstrong’s ordeal has been welcomed with the kind of euphoria that only a pratfall into the dung heap for American exceptionalism can bring.
I have no role in Armstrong’s case and am in no position to make forensic assessments of his guilt or innocence. Nevertheless, having worked on doping issues in professional sports, including cycling, I have seen how the vectors of bureaucratic big-game hunting, international politics, sensitive testing mechanisms, the lust for degradation ceremonies, and competitive resentment can intersect to the detriment of what Tom Wolfe called the Great White Defendant.
Some are arguing that Armstrong’s capitulation is the ultimate proof of his guilt. If he were innocent, the logic goes, he would fight these charges to the bitter end.
One reason that so many people reach this conclusion is that so few people have ever been on the receiving end of searing investigations, prolonged litigation, or a media duck shoot. For those who haven’t experienced these crucibles, it’s easy to take a page from Eddie Murphy’s sketch and unleash the Rambo talk about fighting to the last man.
It’s also easy to believe in the postmodern conceit that if you just hire the right handlers, you can control all of the vectors that over-determine the outcome of these cosmic collisions.
But the fight-back ethic, which I heartily endorse in many crises, can be unmanageable in an age when there are billions of data points whizzing around, and the proof of a target’s guilt is paradoxically the lack of evidence. In media firestorms, what people want to believe trumps what the data show.
Put simply, it wouldn’t be worth it for Armstrong to fight these charges. It would not only be expensive (even by Armstrong’s standards), but also grueling and soul-crushing. These sorts of ordeals damage people’s psyches and destroy their relationships and professional lives. And it would never end, because unlike the many races that Armstrong has won over the years, the battle for his reputation has no finish line where a concrete result is adjudicated by a single body. Rather, Armstrong would confront famously hostile bodies of questionable jurisdiction and motivation. Even if “the facts” didn’t destroy him, the process would.
If crisis management is making the best of very bad options, then Armstrong’s decision to get on with his life makes sense. After all, if anyone understands the truism about life being short, it’s him.
Eric Dezenhall is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm, and the author of books including the historical novel “The Devil Himself.”