The Lance Armstrong affair post-mortem part 1

I'm still not all the way through the USADA report on Lance Armstrong. It's old news by this point to most people, especially as most Americans only followed cycling for the years Armstrong was relevant.

This won't be my moral judgment on the whole affair, and anyhow that's probably the least interesting information I could offer up at this point given that most people have already affiliated themselves on one side or the other of the argument.

I did want to highlight, though, some more broadly interesting bits of the USADA report and Tyler Hamilton's tell-all book The Secret Race for those who didn't bother with them.

First of note, and I must confess to feeling deep guilt for being fascinated by this material, are some of the emails between some of the players in this affair. For example, here's an email exchange between Armstrong and then teammate Frankie Andreu from Andreu's wife Betty Andreu's affidavit (PDF). It won't take long to read, go ahead and power through it, and then come back.

Amazing, right? I don't mean amazing in the sense of inspiring (for example, in the sense of giving hope to millions of cancer patients). I mean amazing in the sense of how deeply trivial the whole argument seems and yet how heated it becomes, in the very real way that friendships and relationships often fracture in the real world. To be honest, it's a bit of a coincidence that this bickering email exchange is even included in the USADA report as it's only tangentially related to doping (and then only in the sense of demonstrating the retaliatory environment Lance threatened team members with, or at least that's the guess on the part of me with my zero law degrees).

I already have a deep fascination of this entire form, the emotional battle fought via email. A close variant are professional coaches or players who complain about each other to reporters instead of to each other. Or friends who bicker via text messages. These are all extreme forms of passive aggression, and passive aggressive people are both cowardly and riveting.

When I read these emails I picture people pounding away at their keyboards, faces constricted with anger. The same anonymity shield that enables trolling has enabled an entire class of passive aggressive warfare the likes of which the world has never seen.

If you ever planned to send an email like this, my advice is to not do it. Or if you write the email, don't send it. Keep it there, memorize it, then go find the person and speak to them in person, using your email as an outline. It will be far more productive, you will likely strip some of the most cruel attacks way down when speaking in person, and some time later you'll read the email, find it shockingly melodramatic, and delete it. Having been in the business world for a while now, I'm often convinced that half of becoming a senior leader in a company is learning to shed away layers of passive aggression.

But if you can't help yourself and must hide behind the technological veil of email, then at least lob grenades on topics of enough public interest that these emails surface to the public so we can enjoy hours of juicy textual soap opera magic.

The Andreu - Armstrong email exchange is interesting because two years later, Armstrong and Andreu have a more tender email exchange (PDF), with Armstrong prodding Andreu to return to racing.

Many of the emails are intriguing not for the nuggets about doping but for all the other human interaction that just happen to be packed into the email around them. For example, this email from Christian Vande Velde to Frankie Andreu (PDF) has only the briefest relevance to the doping case (It mentions "You'd be find for a day under the proper care of Louis" which is a one-line reference to Luis del Moral, a Spanish doctor among the central figures in the doping investigation). Surrounding it is a friendly check-in email that conveys much about rider psychology and the particular fabric of male camaraderie among the team, in the way that old letter exchanges between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning tell us so much about the nature of not just their romance but all romances and great loves of their age.

Here is another rich transcript, this one an IM exchange between Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters, discussing their feelings about Lance's doping program. It's a riveting exchange, indicative of how much everyone inside cycling knew about how the doping worked, down to specific details, and how Andreu and Vaughters felt about Armstrong (as with most people not in Armstrong's inner circle, they thought he was an asshole), but even more remarkable to me in some ways is the sheer length of the exchange. I text a fair bit, but I have never had a single text message exchange of this duration. You can feel the intensity of emotion from Andreu and Vaughters rising off of these short bursts of text from this traditionally concise communication medium. Vaughters sense of guilt and remorse is palpable, and it makes his op-ed in the NYTimes  many years later (published in August this year) feel like the closing of a loop.

Today we collect and republish remarkable letters from years past at sites like Letters of Note. But for modern communication, we're not waiting. We have sites like HeTexted and Texts From Last Night commemorating communications in near real-time for public dissection. I hope we have sites in the future that publish email exchanges as well. It's the dominant long-form communication method of this age, and in so many ways it's the richest documentation of human interaction, especially within tech companies where it's the dominant communication medium.

I had an idea for a series of books documenting tech company histories comprised entirely of just emails sent to and from employees of that company. Maybe the series would be titled 1001 emails, and each book in the series would look at a different company, like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc. It will probably never happen given how secretive tech companies are, but that would be amazing, wouldn't it?

Until then, if you're just mildly interested in the Lance Armstrong case, I suggest the exchanges linked above, and if you want to dive in deeper, Appendix A (at the top of the page here) holds the majority of the most readable, general interest material. We may not get our hagiographic Lance Armstrong biopic starring Matt Damon anymore, but in this material is in some ways a richer vein of human drama.

The race he can't win, and the race she won't cover?

Lance Armstrong stepped down as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation today, and Nike issued a terse statement announcing they were dropping him as one of their celebrity athlete endorsers (Trek, Anheuser-Busch, Honey Stinger, and FRS Co. also are dropping Armstrong). Nike still has deals with Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Vick (who they dropped and then resigned), and so you see the narrow focus on sports competition as their sacred brand territory. Cheating on your wife and killing dogs are forgivable offenses, but sports doping is not. It's a telling calculus that more clearly delineates the subtext of "Just do it."

The first link above is to an article in the Washington Post, and if you look in the left sidebar, you'll see several other Washington Post articles linked, including one from Sally Jenkins from August 24th of this year titled "Lance Armstrong doping campaign exposes USADA's hypocrisy." That article begins thus:

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.

Jenkins co-authored Lance Armstrong's two biographies, It's Not About the Bike and Every Second Count. I loved both books, and they were huge sellers. She had unprecedented access to Armstrong, and she must have spent a ton of time with him working on those books. It's not hard to imagine that she'd be quite fond of Lance.

But given the overwhelming evidence that's come out since Jenkins last story on Armstrong, her silence each day grows more deafening. I don't know if there's is a universally accepted code of ethics for journalists, like they have in medicine, but those of you who are journalists or studied journalism may be able to answer this for me: does Sally Jenkins, as a journalist, and one with more access to Lance Armstrong than seemingly any other journalist, have a professional obligation to report on this story further? Or, since so many other outlets have covered this story, is it really just at her discretion since the public has already had and will continue to have a saturation of media coverage on the topic? As Lance's friend, can she simply take a pass?

A simple Google search led me to this Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalism, and the preamble begins like this:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

When Jenkins writes that she believes Lance Armstrong is a good man and nothing short of murder would alter her opinion on that, she is skirting dangerously close to violating the journalist's code. Is she seeking the truth here, or does she have a narrative about Lance that prevents her from seeing clearly on this issue.

She also writes that Armstrong is not a mastermind criminal, and I agree with her on that in one sense (more on that in a second), but when you read Tyler Hamilton's confessions in Daniel Coyle's The Secret Race and all the sworn affidavits from Lance's ex-teammates in the report released by the USADA, it's hard not to see Lance as one of the masterminds of an incredibly sophisticated doping operation. The word "criminal" gives me some pause given the nature of the offenses here: the societal harm from Lance's doping is so far beneath those of many other people that I'm with Jenkins on struggling with whether the amount of taxpayer money going towards the investigations is being spent wisely.

But since these mounds of evidence have come out, she hasn't even argued that point. Or anything at all. 

It's surprising in one way, and that's that Jenkins went through something similar before and did change her tune. Jenkins had an exclusive interview with Joe Paterno in January in which he claimed ignorance of the police inquiry into accusations of child molestation by his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. This came on the heels of a November 2011 article from Jenkins titled "Blame for the Penn State scandal does not lie with Joe Paterno". Later that year, the Freeh report came out, and after reading it, Jenkins wrote another column on Paterno. As with her article on Lance Armstrong of Aug. 24, this one cut to the chase with the opening line:

Joe Paterno was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now. He was also a cover-up artist. If the Freeh report is correct in its summary of the Penn State child molestation scandal, the public Paterno of the last few years was a work of fiction. In his place is a hubristic, indictable hypocrite.

When asked about her turnabout on Paterno, she gave a straightforward account on Poynter:

So she called her editor and told him, “I think I’ve got to write that he lied.” Her editor agreed, but they decided that she should go through the entire report and her interview transcription to make sure she was on solid ground. That process of comparing the two, she said, is what led to the structure of the column.

I read a sense of betrayal in it, and Jenkins said others have asked her if she’s outraged or angry at being lied to. She’s not.

She described the column as a “cold-eyed” account, a “forensic realization: He lied.” Not to her, she said, but to the victims and their families. “It’s a public lie.”

As a journalist in her position, “it’s forensically your job to print that.”

Go back to that first paragraph of her last article on Paterno, make a few substitutions, and you could imagine Jenkins' next article about Lance Armstrong opening the same way:

Lance Armstrong [Joe Paterno] was a liar, there’s no doubt about that now. He was also a cover-up artist. If the USADA report [Freeh report] is correct in its summary of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling doping scandal [Penn State child molestation scandal], the public Armstrong [Paterno] of the last few years was a work of fiction. In his place is a hubristic, indictable hypocrite.

The pattern of events feels the same, but this time, Jenkins hasn't brought down the hammer, or gavel. Isn't it still "forensically" her job to print that?

We all wait for Lance to just fess up and to begin the process of seeking forgiveness in the court of public opinion, though given the nuclear core of defiance at the heart of his soul, I'm not holding my breath. And we wait for Sally Jenkins to share her thoughts on Lance in light of the USADA report, but she remains mute. Perhaps she is working on the column already, or maybe she's still sifting through the long USADA report and cross-checking it against specific moments in her books. Or maybe she's saving it all for a follow-up book with Lance, the third and closing chapter of their biographical collaboration.

Ask any cycling coach about what's the best way to ride faster, and they'll tell you it's easier to shed weight than to improve your leg strength. I hope both Armstrong and Jenkins take that to heart.

Transient

FOOTNOTE: Those of you who have followed my blog since the beginning know I was a Texas-sized Lance Armstrong fan, for a variety of reasons. So I feel like I have a Jenkins-like reckoning with this Greek tragedy to write as well. I've finished the Tyler Hamilton book by Daniel Coyle, but I still want to finish reading the USADA report first.

Miscellaneous

  • This is an old one. I don't think Apple should be able to patent much of what they do patent, but that doesn't mean this isn't a nifty touch: the pulsing LED light on Apple laptop covers is designed to fade in and out at the rate of human breathing, a rate "which is psychologically appealing."
  • Camera heavyweights Leica and Red have both announced digital cameras that will only shoot black and white. Why build digital sensors that only shoot black and white when color frames can be transformed into black and white? A typical CMOS sensor has a pattern of red, green, and blue filters that sit on top of the sensor, and each pixel is assigned one of those filters. Thus each pixel only records one color, and an algorithm (debayer) must be applied after the fact to interpolate the full color for that pixel. If you remove the Bayer filter, each pixel sees more light, and without having to debayer, the image is sharper and the tonal curve more smoothly rendered.
  • Are there cracks in China's march economic growth march? George Magnus of UBS thinks so, and a recent note he published drew lots of attention across the web. As this article summarizes, Magnus believes that "China’s innovation and technology shortcomings are rooted in a socio-cultural system and an incentive system that emphasizes incremental over radical change, and quantity over quality and uniqueness." This may leave China ever lagging other global leaders in innovation.
  • After reading The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Dping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, Tyler Hamilton's confession of the doping he did as Lance Armstrong's teammate and then competitor, I wasn't surprised at the revelations of the extent of the doping in professional cycling. Oddly enough, having visited the Tour de France in person several times, you'd hear ex-professionals, whether riders or soigneurs or mechanics, drop not-so-subtle hints that doping was common and expected. However, I was curious how Sally Jenkins would cover it. She wrote Lance Armstrong's two biographies (It's Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts), both great reads but, given Armstrong's participation, largely hagiographic, so I was curious if she'd have it in her to join those who've condemned him given his recent decision to give up the fight against the USADA. It appears that nothing short of a confession from Lance Armstrong will sway her. Her last column on Armstrong starts: "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." She goes on to condemn the USADA's methods, and she raises good questions about whether athletes can get a fair shake from them. Also, given our economy, the amount of money the USADA spends is of questionable value. Still, I was hoping Jenkins would address the Lance issue head on. It seems she'll simply pass.
  • I concur with Andy Greenwald about Boardwalk Empire: the lead role is miscast, and the dozens of storylines sprawl like so many strands of spaghetti. I've never warmed to the show. Has a show ever broken out in its third season the way wide receivers are rumored to in the NFL?