Convicted dog-killer Michael Vick remains welcome at Nike. So is serial philanderer Tiger Woods. Back in 2009, when Alex Rodriguez admitted using steroids to help him hit home runs, Nike stood by him and fulfilled his contract (until they quietly let it expire). But today, the billion-dollar sports apparel company found religion and cut ties with Lance Armstrong after the United States Anti-Doping Agency published evidence from its investigation into performance-enhancement doping. Accusations have always swirled around Armstrong, who recovered from cancer to win an unprecedented seven Tour de France races, but he’d never tested positive and repeatedly and passionately denied ever cheating.
Apparently, the latest revelations, which include sworn testimony from 11 former teammates, were the final straw. “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. Nike plans to continue support of the Livestrong initiatives created to unite, inspire and empower people affected by cancer.”
Armstrong himself will no longer be a part of those initiatives. Today, he stepped down from his cancer foundation in order to save it. “I have had the great honor of serving as this foundation’s chairman for the last five years and its mission and success are my top priorities,” Armstrong said in a statement. “Today therefore, to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship.”
In one fell swoop, Nike managed to do something that Armstrong was never able to do: make him seem like a victim. Though he still has millions of admirers and supporters who believe his denials, the evidence against him has been difficult to refute for some time. And the media’s portrayal of his vociferous defense often revealed him to be ruthless, vindictive, and prickly. But those negative qualities now seem equaled by Nike’s hypocrisy. The company never wavered in their support for Tiger Woods, even as his scandal grew more and more sordid. They stood by Kobe Bryant while he was tried for rape. They cut ties with Michael Vick only when he was in prison — but renewed that relationship once he was scoring touchdowns again. Even disgraced Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, who was caught for using performance-enhancement drugs, was kept around until it was determined that she no longer had an athletic future.
And that’s the rub here. Woods, Bryant, and Vick were still in their athletic primes. They could still sell. Armstrong, on the other hand, is 42. His days of serious competition are over, and Nike has simply decided that the cost of Armstrong’s baggage is no longer worth sullying their brand. But if it was still 2000, when Armstrong was in the midst of his historic Tour run, it’s difficult to envision Nike being so high-minded based on their previous record of “loyalty.” Armstrong is not a sympathetic figure to most observers, but Nike’s attempt to claim the moral high ground on the matter is as shameful as anything in this long, sad story.