A Recent History of Lance Armstrong Apologists

Even as Buzz Bissinger retracts a Newsweek cover story, Armsgtrong still has his defenders. Did they still buy his lies? Or did they just enable the man they're now calling a "sleazeball"? Here's a look, in their own words, as the pre-Oprah debate heats up

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On the day he is set to tape a mea culpa on performance-enhancing drugs with Oprah Winfrey, former media hero Lance Armstrong lost one of the last writers willing to step up and vouch for him: Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights. After being being stripped of his seven tour titles and receiving a lifetime ban in the sport of cycling last August, Armstrong's defenders — both journalists and sponsors — started dropping by the bunch. But still, the man had his apologists, some of whom, to this day, still don't think he did anything wrong. Did they still buy Armstrong's lie? Or did they just enable the man they're now calling a "sleazeball"? Here's a look, in their own words, as the pre-Oprah debate heats up:

Buzz Bissinger: "I completely fucked the duck."

What He Said Then: "Did he use enhancers? Maybe I am the one who is blind, but I take him at his word and don't believe it; he still passed hundreds of drug tests, many of them given randomly. But even if he did take enhancers, so what?" That's what Bissinger wrote in a Newsweek cover story from August 27, 2012. At the time, many thought it was another trolling attempt by Tina Brown to sell a fading magazine, or maybe just Bissinger's latest contrarian attack in his second career at The Daily Beast. "It's a slam job," he wrote, "and Armstrong is the victim of that slam."

What He's Saying Now: "I will not take all the blame. Because I was played by Armstrong." That's what Bissinger writes at The Daily Beast today, by way of expletive-laden tweet and in anticipation of Armstrong's Oprah interview. He adds:

The interview is to air Thursday. But I will give you a preview now for determining his veracity:

Whatever he says, subtract by a thousand, divide by two, then three, then multiply the whole sum of bullshit by zero. 

Ouch. The key phrase here is "all the blame" because Bissinger, despite this missives about Armstrong's character, also takes a lot of blame upon himself — and sports journalists at large, what with the whole "exclusive" desire of hero-worshipping sports journalism these days. He wrote:

I did want him to confess, because I knew it would be a nice notch on the belt, lots of pats on the head from editors who were all over me to get to the exclusive. I did coo in his ear, playing the familiar but odious game of pissing on his detractors. I did write him emails saying that no journalist would treat him more fairly than me. I detested those emails. I was only further contributing to the slime.

Bissinger also went to Twitter, where he was a bit more succinct:

For what it's worth, Newsbeast editor Tina Brown has also weighed in:

Nike: Insurmountable Evidence

What They Said Then: Nike defended Armstrong all the way up until October 17 last year. And the sporting giant had defended Armstrong and admonished allegations of doping along the way, mainly by way of ads featuring Armstrong himself. Here's one from 2001, in which Armstrong says:

This is my body and I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it and study it, tweak it, listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I am on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?

And here's one more 2009 commercial, wherein Armstrong's voiceover says:

"The critics says I’m arrogant, a doper and washed up, a fraud. That I couldn’t let it go. They can say whatever they want. I’m not back on my bike for them."

In August, when Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, Nike issued this soft statement (via The Wall Street Journalin support of Armstrong:

"We are saddened that Lance Armstrong may no longer be able to participate in certain competitions and his titles appear to be impacted ... Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position. Nike plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a foundation that Lance created to serve cancer survivors."

What They're Saying Now: Well, they fired him on October 17. The statement they released cites "insurmountable evidencem," which is odd considering they were still softly supporting him in just two months earlier:

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 does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner. 

Other corporate sponsors, like Radio Shack and Anheuser Busch, dumped on Armstrong the same day.

ESPN's Rick Reilly: Wear Yellow

What He Said Then: "The man is a test passer. He's had tests of scalpels and IVs, lungs and muscle, and now age and will. For 23 days, he will be trying to pass this 2,262-mile test against riders whose fathers he raced. He'll be trying to pass it every day, and it mesmerizes and astonishes me," Reilly wrote for ESPN.com in July of 2010, when Armstrong was competing in his thirteenth and final Tour de France. "Test passer" isn't exactly the most ardent defense we can think of, but okay. Reilly added:

"[D]oesn't Armstrong deserve the benefit of the doubt? A man who's worked tirelessly for and inspired people you know, people in your life, people who don't even know yet that they will need him for inspiration? A man who, right in front of your eyes, is trying to make calendars stop turning?

What He's Saying Now: Reilly addressed Armstrong's doping and punishment from the USADA in a column on September 4 that ran wunderth the headline "Lance still worth revering." Reilly wanted to get the point across that he didn't care whether Armstrong doped, that his contributions to cancer research and other causes outweighs the alleged lying, and that people should wear yellow to support Armstrong:

But wear something yellow Friday just to return the favor. Wear something yellow to tell Lance Armstrong that they might be able to ban him for life, but they can't ban him from life. Wear it to tell him to keep going, to keep fighting for cancer-research legislation, to keep showing people through his Livestrong foundation how to fight through the red tape and get to the treatment that can cure them.

In five years, nobody will want to check to see if Lance Armstrong's name is still attached to those trophies. But in five years, they'll still want him leading any peloton that's trying to chase down cancer.

Sally Jenkins: I'm Not Angry

What She Said Then: Well, this one's sort of odd. Jenkins wrote two books with Armstrong (It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life and Every Second Counts). Jenkins, a columnist for The Washington Post, wrote there on August 24:

First of all, Lance Armstrong is a good man. There’s nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that. Second, I don’t know if he’s telling the truth when he insists he didn’t use performance-enhancing drugs in the Tour de France — never have known. I do know that he beat cancer fair and square, that he’s not the mastermind criminal the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency makes him out to be, and that the process of stripping him of his titles reeks.

Clearly, Jenkins is friendly with Armstrong. After that column, as Jim Romenesko pointed out, she went on a brief hiatus, which Romeneseko asked her about. She responded and revealed more about her friendship:

In the meantime I can tell you that while my thoughts are complicated Lance remains a friend of mine, and my personal opinion of him was never based on what he did or didn’t do while riding a bike up an Alp. I like the guy.

What She's Saying Now: On December 15, Jenkins broke her Armstrong hiatus and penned another column defending him in the Post. "I've searched high and low for my anger at Lance, and I can't find it. It's just not there. I checked — looked in every corner, and I'm empty of it," Jenkins wrote about her co-author. The defense continued, with the by now too familiar everyone-else-did-it excuse...

Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because, though I hoped he was clean, it’s simply not shocking or enraging to learn that he was like all the other cyclists who sought a medical advantage in riding up the faces of mountains. 

...and that maybe it's our fault Armstrong doped:

Or because I’ve long believed that what athletes put in their bodies should be a matter of personal conscience, not police actions — when we demand unhealthy, even death-defying extremes of them for our entertainment, it seems the height of hypocrisy to then dictate what’s good for them.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.