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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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Lance Armstrong on Oprah Winfrey

Lance Armstrong is a legendary cyclist who successfully fought cancer, founded the Livestrong Foundation, and won the Tour de France seven times. Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. In 1997 he established the Lance Armstrong Foundation, later renamed the Livestrong Foundation, to support people with cancer. He won the Tour de France in 1999 and went on to win the next six of these races, an unprecedented accomplishment (CNN, 2013). However, allegations that Armstrong doped (used banned performance-enhancing substances) started emerging. Weislo (2012) lists some of the many accusations of doping made against Armstrong over the years, including allegations from L'Equipe in 1999, Walsh and Ballester's book L.A. confidential: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong in 2004, and teammate Floyd Landis in 2010 after Landis admitted his own doping. Armstrong's supporters did not remain silent and neither did he, issuing numerous denials of doping (Associated Press, 2013). Furthermore, Armstrong actively worked to stifle criticism. For example, Thompson, Vinton, O'Keeffe, and Red (2013) reported that

Armstrong unleashed a shotgun blast of litigation at virtually everyone involved with L.A. confidential: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong. Just as the book was hitting shelves in Europe, Armstrong sued the authors, the publisher, the sources (including Emma O'Reilly [a cycling team masseuse]), a magazine that ran an excerpt, and the Sunday Times of London, the British newspaper that ran a preview of the book.

The Department of Justice investigated Armstrong but did not bring charges (CNN, 2013). In October 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) issued a report condemning Armstrong. CEO Travis Tygart began by stressing the quality of the evidence used to draw conclusions:

The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team (USPS Team) and its participants' doping activities. The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory tests that further prove the use, possession, and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.

Lance Armstrong was accused of doping and distributing performanceenhancing drugs. Tygart noted that several athletes came forward to help the investigation: “Lance Armstrong was given the same opportunity to come forward and be part of the solution. He rejected it.” Some cyclists on the USPS Team contested the charges; in contrast, Armstrong “exercised his legal right not to contest the evidence and knowingly accepted the imposition of a ban from recognized competition for life and disqualification of his competitive results from 1998 forward.” The accusations against Armstrong appeared very damaging, particularly when he decided not to challenge his ban and he was stripped of his titles. The charges he faced were (1) that he doped (which meant he cheated in his sport and allegedly defrauded the USPS and American taxpayers by accepting sponsorship), (2) that he distributed performance-enhancing drugs to the USPS Team and encouraged doping, and (3) that he lied about doping and falsely attacked his accusers.

In January 2012, Armstrong appeared in an interview with Oprah Winfrey broadcast over 2 days (BBC, 2013a, 2013b). Yahoo!TV (2013) reports that the 9:00 p.m. broadcast had 3.2 million viewers, making it the second-highest-rated program on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The episode was rebroadcast at 10:30, when 1.1 million viewers watched. And of course, Armstrong's defense was widely discussed in the media. So directly and indirectly, this image repair effort had a huge audience. Armstrong used four strategies in his image repair interview: mortification, defeasibility, denial, and differentiation.

Mortification

He admitted that he had taken banned substances, including EPO, testosterone, and human grown hormone, and that he used blood transfusions to enhance his performance. Furthermore, he did not dispute the statement, “You were defiant, you called other people liars.” He also said that “a lot of people” helped promote his false story but “all of the fault and all of the blame here falls on me.” He stated, “They are my mistakes and I am sitting here today to acknowledge that and to say I'm sorry for that.” He also agreed that he felt disgraced: “I also feel humbled and ashamed . . . Do I have remorse? Absolutely. Will it grow? Absolutely. This is my first step and these are my actions. I am paying the price but I deserve it.” Armstrong continued, “People who believed in me and supported me . . . have every right to feel betrayed and it is my fault and I'll spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people.” In discussing his lawsuit against Emma O'Riley, he said that “we sued so many people I don't even [know if we sued her]. I'm sure we did.” Admitting that accusations are true, accepting blame, and expressing remorse are all aspects of mortification.

Defeasibility

Armstrong also used defeasibility, asserting that “I didn't invent the culture” even while conceding he “didn't try to stop the culture.” When he said he was sorry, he ended by saying, “The culture was what it was.” He also implied that he used testosterone because he was “running low” on testosterone after his battle with cancer.

Denial

He also selectively used denial in his defense. When Oprah quoted Tygart's accusation that Armstrong was involved in the “biggest, most sophisticated, professional, and successful doping program sport has ever seen,” Armstrong said that was false because the “East German doping program in the '70s and '80s” was bigger. He claimed he did not use doping or blood transfusions after 2005. He also denied that there was a positive test for banned substances in the 2001 Tour de Suisse: “That story isn't true. There was no positive test.”

Differentiation

Oprah said, “You've said dozens of times in interviews that you never failed a test.” He responded, “No, I didn't fail a test. Retroactively, I failed one. The hundreds of tests I took, I passed them. There was retroactive stuff later.” Armstrong argued that when the tests were originally taken, they did not reveal use of banned substances. However, when samples were retested later, banned substances were found. He also argued that he did not cheat; his use of performanceenhancing substances leveled the playing field, on which others doped. This statement attempted to differentiate what he did from cheating.

USADA Antapologia

Stein (2008) developed the concept of antapologia, an attacking message issued after an image repair effort designed to respond to and undermine that defense. An instance of this phenomenon occurred in the Armstrong scandal. After the Oprah interview, Tygart (CEO of the USADA) declared that Armstrong “misled Winfrey and the many viewers tuning in” to the interview (Fitzgerald, 2013):

It's not true that the former cyclist tried a clean comeback. Just contrary to the evidence . . . His blood tests in 2009, 2010—expert reports based on the variation of his blood values—from those tests, one to a million chance that it was due to something other than doping.

Furthermore, Tygart stated that Armstrong

also wasn't telling the truth when he said he used only small amounts of the blood booster EPO . . . He used a lot of EPO. You look at the '99 Tour de France samples and they were flaming positive, the highest that we've ever seen. And he's now acknowledged those were positive.

Tygart attempted to undermine Armstrong's defense by disputing some of the claims made in the interview.

Evaluation

Lance Armstrong was an inspiration to many, as he won seven Tour de France races, and his story was even more impressive knowing that he overcame cancer to achieve these feats. The Livestrong Foundation he established was an important organization that he promoted off the field. However, these accomplishments pale in light of the revelation that he cheated competitors, fans, and taxpayers by doping and strenuously lied about using performance-enhancing drugs for years. He ruthlessly destroyed the lives of others who tried to expose his wrongdoing.

His image repair effort used mortification, which was clearly needed in this situation. However, four things hampered his attempts to cleanse his reputation. First, he lied for years, he lied vigorously, and he repeatedly attacked those who attempted to expose his wrongdoing. This pattern of lies left his fans with little sympathy and inclined them to be skeptical of his defense. In particular, his relentless use of denial made it difficult for his audience to believe his remorse was genuine. The fact that he only “came clean” after the USADA released the evidence of his doping, banned him from recognized competition for life, and disqualified his results after 1998 does not make this look like a voluntary and remorseful mortification. He admitted that his doping did not “feel wrong” to him. Second, his defense was inconsistent, veering back and forth between saying it was his fault and then using other strategies, such as shifting blame (others helped tell his false story) or using the culture of the sport as an excuse (defeasibility). He simply could not admit to wrongdoing without adding excuses, differentiation, and denial. Using strategies such as these tended to undermine his defense: It was clear that he did not accept full responsibility for his offensive acts, because he tried to make excuses (e.g., “It wasn't my fault, it was the culture where you had to dope to win”). Third, some of his arguments were so weak as to be silly—for example, arguing that his doping was not the biggest instance in history because one other doping scandal was bigger (that of the East Germans, he claimed). So is the argument that we should forgive him because he only ran the second-biggest doping operation in history? Similarly, arguing that the original test did not detect the banned substance, which was detected later, does not prove him innocent of doping but only that his guilt wasn't established until later. Can a person who robbed a bank 5 years ago claim innocence because his guilt wasn't proven until this year? Fourth, the antapologia from Tygart also undermined his defense. It appeared as if Armstrong's pattern of lies continued. For these reasons I evaluate Lance Armstrong's image repair interview on Oprah Winfrey a failure.

Conclusion

Athletes and other celebrities commit real or imaged offenses, giving rise to the need for image repair discourse. In the case of the New Orleans Saints' bounty program, the scandal tarnished not only the Saints (and individual players and coaches who were with the team) but also the National Football League. This shows that an offensive act can tarnish more than the perpetrator: At times others are responsible for oversight and for preventing the offensive actions. The Armstrong case illustrates the limits of image repair; Armstrong lied for so long about his doping that it was difficult for the audience to accept anything he said in his defense. This analysis of Armstrong's interview shows again that using weak arguments is detrimental in image repair. This case also illustrates Stein's concept of antapologia in Tygart's statement contradicting some of Armstrong's defenses.

 
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