For Lance Armstrong, Backing Down Might Have Hurt More Than Paying $5 Million

Floyd Landis, left, and Lance Armstrong as teammates in the 2004 Tour de France.

WASHINGTON — Lance Armstrong just avoided a trial that could have ended with his financial ruin. He reached a settlement of $5 million, the amount his lawyers offered the federal government almost five years ago to make amends for Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs while he was sponsored by the United States Postal Service.

All things considered, the settlement was a piddling sum. Armstrong’s cycling team received $32.3 million in its final contract with the Postal Service, and the government could have demanded three times that amount from him.

He should be satisfied, content even. But that’s not how Armstrong is wired, at least not the Armstrong I covered for more than a decade. That man conceded nothing, ever.

He told me once that he would welcome a jury trial in his fight against the government. He was positive that the jurors would side with him, believing that his misdeeds were canceled out by the good he had done as a cancer survivor. How many of them had been sick themselves or had loved ones with the disease? How many came from a generation that used to call it, in hushed tones, the “c-word,” as if it were a mystical, omnipotent force?

Did any of them ever wear one of the ubiquitous yellow rubber bracelets from Livestrong, the Armstrong foundation that spread cancer awareness all over the world?

The settlement on Thursday took away the chance to answer those questions, erasing another shot at victory.

Instead Armstrong conceded, not only to the government but to Floyd Landis, his former teammate who initiated the federal fraud complaint as a whistle-blower in 2010. From there, Armstrong’s legacy unraveled. His seven Tour de France titles were revoked. He forfeited millions in bonus money, repaid a British libel settlement and was essentially pushed out of his own foundation.

After Armstrong publicly confessed to doping in 2013, the government joined Landis’s case. Under the terms of Thursday’s settlement, Landis will get 22 percent, or $1.1 million.

That part of the deal is pure defeat for Armstrong, and possibly more painful than any other element of the case. He has to pay the man who was responsible for his downfall, a fellow cyclist who committed similar sins: doping and lying extravagantly about it.

Landis failed a drug test and was stripped of the Tour de France title in 2006, the year after Armstrong’s reign ended. Landis traveled around the United States professing his innocence, wrote a book on the subject and persuaded people to donate to his effort to regain his title and cycling eligibility. More than 1,700 contributed nearly $500,000 to the “Floyd Fairness Fund.”

But Landis lost his legal fight and ended up ostracized from cycling. The whistle-blowing began. He confessed and agreed in court to repay his Fairness Fund donors. It’s entirely possible that he will keep very little of his $1.1 million from Thursday’s settlement, after taxes, a cut for his lawyers and any remaining compensation for the deceived supporters.

Armstrong would surely find little solace in that. Still, aside from paying Landis for his betrayal, Armstrong can write off the settlement as an act of prudence.

The case was scheduled to go to trial on May 7. It would have been great theater — the first time Armstrong’s ugly history had been explored in front of a jury. A cast of memorable characters, many with doping pasts who have been caught in grand lies, would have had the room rapt.

Cycling’s longstanding code of silence would have sustained yet another smarting blow.

I would have paid good money to see Betsy Andreu go toe to toe with Armstrong’s lawyers. The wife of Frankie Andreu, another former Armstrong teammate, Betsy became one of the first people to speak out against Armstrong’s doping — years before Landis did. Armstrong repeatedly tried bullying her, to no avail. Facing Andreu’s sharp tongue and backbone of steel, Armstrong’s legal team would have earned every dime of its fees.

Armstrong smartly pre-empted that show.

“It’s a sad day for justice,” Andreu said Thursday after she heard the news of the settlement. “Honestly, it feels like he just got away with it. This will just empower him to be as ruthless and as vengeful as ever. I’m disappointed because I was looking forward to telling the truth.”

I’m not sure Andreu, who has been proven right many times against steep odds, was correct on this point — that a trial would have brought more justice than the deal cut by federal prosecutors.

After the theatrics, the jury might still have sided with Armstrong. No matter how much he had been discredited as an athlete, I suspect there was enough adoration left for him to walk away with his bank accounts unscathed.

Maybe the government sensed that. Maybe it didn’t.

In the end, a mediator told both sides that $5 million was the magic number. The government, which had demanded at least $10 million to settle, took that advice and gained the satisfaction of holding a celebrity at least nominally accountable.

In some circles, that sort of compromise is a win. If Armstrong can see things that way, he has changed a lot. And that’s a triumph of its own.

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