On Monday, Lance Armstrong called Doug Ulman, the CEO of Livestrong. His usual greeting was, “What’s going on?” Not this day. Armstrong said he was reconsidering his role at the foundation. “If there’s something I need to do to ensure that we can reduce the distraction here, I’m willing to do anything and everything,” Ulman recalls Armstrong saying. “If that means stepping down as chairman, I’m willing to do it.”
That, Ulman tells me, was the beginning of a conversation that continued in person at Livestrong’s Austin headquarters and on the phone. Finally, on Tuesday, Armstrong told him he was resigning.
The foundation is no stranger to enduring controversy over its famous founder. Armstrong has been dogged by doping allegations for years. They intensified two years ago during a high-profile federal investigation, which was ultimately dropped this year. And two months ago, they peaked again when Armstrong announced he was dropping his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s charges, which many interpreted as a tacit admission of guilt. But the fever pitch was last week when the USADA’s lengthy report came out. Former teammates described in detail a well-organized, top secret, and continuous doping operation. Speculation followed about the impact of the news on the foundation he chaired.
“I think it’s the right thing for the foundation at this point in time and for him at this point in time,” Ulman says. “He realized that.”
“To spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship,” Armstrong said in a statement on Livestrong’s blog.
Around 10 o’clock last night, while Ulman was home watching the presidential debate, a Nike executive called with another bombshell. “It was very matter of fact,” says Ulman. Nike told him it was ending its contract with Armstrong but that it remains committed to Livestrong. Nike has separate contracts with the foundation and its founder. Livestrong has two years remaining on its contact with the company, which sells a line of Livestrong apparel. The timing of Armstrong's resignation and Nike's termination, says Ulman, was coincidental. The two decisions weren't related. A Nike spokesman I contacted later agreed.Ulman and his staff are counting on its other corporate partners to make a similar distinction, separating out the sins of the cyclist from the foundation’s cancer mission. Since the scandal heated up in August, he and his staff have been reaching out to its sponsors as well as its top grassroots organizers. None has pulled out.
“It’s so early it’s hard to know,” he says of the potential fallout. This year’s donations, after all, are already ahead of where they were a year ago (up 8%).
This weekend, he’ll learn firsthand how the Livestrong community feels about the news. To celebrate its 15th anniversary, the foundation is throwing a gala with appearances by Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, and Norah Jones. And one more: Lance Armstrong. Instead of withdrawing, he’ll appear as usual. He’s even hosting a dinner for big supporters at his house.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” Ulman says. “Because we’ll have thousands of friends and partners and supporters and right now those people need to be together.”
Armstrong’s appearance just days after a string of disgraceful news may sound surprising, but not in the Livestrong community. As I discovered while reporting at Livestrong events, its supporters see a different Lance Armstrong than the one in the doping stories. He’s a fellow cancer survivor. One after another, they told me that cycling and doping doesn’t matter to them. What he represents as a survivor and what he’s doing to help others with cancer matters.
It’s a perplexing duality. The same man now widely considered one of the biggest cheats in sports also started one of the most innovative cancer organizations on the planet. No wonder he’s so polarizing.
For Livestrong, the danger now is that because of his high-profile trouble—and ongoing denials—people dismiss the organization or don’t fully appreciate what it does and support declines. As I chronicled in a profile of Livestrong, the foundation started out with a narrow focus, raising money and awareness around testicular cancer, which Armstrong had. But the mission later expanded to address cancer in general and evolved beyond a typical athlete's non-profit. It eventually shed his name in its branding, going with Livestrong. While it helps other outfits like the American Cancer Society raise money for research, Livestrong’s focus is helping survivors. It runs a clinic and helpline navigating patients through medical, insurance, and psychological issues, fertility and exercise programs, survivorship centers at major hospitals, and a clinical-trial referral service. Because of the ubiquitous yellow bracelets, people know of Livestrong, but they often don’t know its behind-the-scenes work.
On his way to work this morning, Ulman called Armstrong. They talked about today’s news, and Armstrong read him some of the emails he’s been receiving. Emails of support. One was from a survivor in Houston whom the Livestrong has been helping. “I am alive today and have a chance at surviving because of your staff,” the boy wrote.
That’s all it takes, says Ulman, a three-time cancer survivor, to put things in perspective on a tough day at the foundation. “It’s just what I needed to hear,” he says. “How many times do you get a chance to prolong or help someone’s life?”
Ulman's challenge going forward is making sure he and Livestrong doesn’t lose the opportunity.
[Image: Associated Press]