Author: Greg G. Armfield, Ph. D.*
New Mexico State University
John McGuire, Ph. D,
Oklahoma State University
* Please direct all correspondence to the first author Greg G. Armfield (Ph.D. University of Missouri) Associate Professor, New Mexico State University, Department of Communication Studies, MSC 3W, P.O. Box 30001, Las Cruces, NM 88003-8001, (575) 646-4729, e-mail: Armfield@NMSU.edu
This study examined image repair strategies of cyclist Lance Armstrong when he admitted in January 2013 to using performance enhancing drugs while winning seven consecutive Tour de France events, the sport’s most prestigious event. The findings show Armstrong favored mortification as a primary strategy while utilizing secondary image repair strategies including forms of reducing offensiveness (e.g., attacking one’s accusers, bolstering), denial (simple, shifting blame), and evading responsibility (defeasibility). Despite Armstrong’s efforts at image repair, researchers concluded it had failed as polling done after the interview found the public had turned against one of the most popular American athletes of the 2000s. The findings suggest that Armstrong’s prolonged evasion of the truth had undercut his ability to engage in successful image repair.
Keywords: Image Repair, Athletes, Cycling, Lance Armstrong.
There are certain athletes who personify their sport. Ask someone in the early 2000s to name a top male swimmer and they would most likely come up with American Michael Phelps. Discuss track and field and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt would likely be one of the first persons mentioned. In the world of cycling, the one competitor who stood out during that time was Lance Armstrong. The Texas native raced to an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France victories between 1999 and 2005. Making that accomplishment seem all the more incredible was his personal story. In October 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with a form of testicular cancer that threatened his life (“Lance Armstrong Time Line,” 2012). Armstrong was able to make a remarkable recovery that led to his dominance of the world’s greatest cycling competition. Yet, Armstrong was hounded by accusations that his victories were tainted because of his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
While Armstrong was never proven to conclusively test positive for PEDs during his career and he aggressively denied all allegations of drug use, witness after witness came forth to say they saw or were told Armstrong was cheating. At the time, Armstrong both proclaimed his innocence and attacked his accusers. On August 23, 2012 when the United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA) was seeking to ban Armstrong from future competitions for alleged PED use, the star cyclist abruptly announced, “enough is enough.” Armstrong declared he would no longer fight USADA, although Armstrong continued proclaiming his innocence (“Lance Armstrong’s Statement,” 2012). USADA moved to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and banned Armstrong from further competition around the world. Cycling’s international body, the International Cycling Union (UCI) endorsed USADAs decision in October 2012. The embattled cyclist eventually was forced to step down as chairman of the board for the Livestrong Foundation and eventually severing all ties in order to “spare the foundation any negative effects” from the “controversy” regarding his cycling career (“Lance Armstrong to,” 2012). Concurrently, many of Armstrong’s corporate sponsors, including Nike, Trek, Oakley, Nissan, Michelob, and Radio Shack all ended partnerships with the now disgraced athlete.
Three months after Armstrong’s world crumbled around him, he decided to speak out. Armstrong chose to speak in a one-on-one interview with one of the world’s most powerful media figures, Oprah Winfrey, in a prime-time program that aired over two nights in January 2013. This research, utilizing Benoit’s (1995) Image Repair theory, examines strategies employed by Armstrong in the interviews that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). This research will add to the growing body of literature examining the use of image repair by athletes in all sports.
This paper will: (a) offer a summary of events leading to Armstrong being stripped of Tour de France titles and being banned from the sport for life; (b) an overview of Benoit’s Image Repair theory; (c) an analysis of Armstrong’s use of image repair; and (d) an evaluation of the effectiveness of Armstrong’s image repair strategies, based on public opinion surveys and social media response after Armstrong’s interview with Winfrey.
Lance Armstrong: Super Athlete or Master Deceiver?
Armstrong’s prominence on the national sports scene (albeit in a fringe sport for many Americans) dates back to the 1990s. After starting as a triathlete, Armstrong turned to bicycling full-time in the 1990s, winning a national amateur title in 1991 and competing in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics (“Lance Armstrong Time Line,” 2012). After turning pro, Armstrong rose through the sport to claim the world’s top ranking in 1996. Months later Armstrong received a diagnosis of advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Although it would be more than a year before he could start training again, Armstrong completed one of the greatest comebacks in American sports history by winning his first Tour de France race in 1999 (“Lance Armstrong Time Line,” 2012).
As Armstrong began collecting one championship after another in the world’s toughest bicycle race, some suspected that more than physical skill was involved. Before the 2004 Tour, a book written by David Walsh and Pierre Ballester alleged Armstrong had used PEDs as early as 1999 to cycle his way to the top of that sport (Makitalo, 2012). The authors cited numerous sources within the sport in making their claim. Armstrong, who said he had ignored such allegations in the past, aggressively refuted this particular allegation through interviews and news conferences. Armstrong’s vigorous defense was designed in part to protect his team’s endorsement deals, which at the time were worth millions of dollars (Fox & Isidore, 2012). Armstrong was also in the process of starting his Livestrong campaign in the United States, promoting the sale of yellow wrist bracelets in order to raise funds for cancer research efforts. By 2006, an estimated 55 million bracelets had been sold around the world (“Lance Armstrong Time Line,” 2012). Armstrong’s 2005 Tour championship was engulfed again in controversy when a French newspaper (L’Equipe) quoted the Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, as charging that a 1999 sample taken from Armstrong had indeed tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO) (“Transcripts,” 2005). Armstrong denied the charge, noting that there was no backup sample tested as required to confirm a positive test (“Transcripts,” 2005).
Armstrong retired after the 2005 Tour and did not race professionally on road bikes from 2006 to 2008. However, a stream of media stories questioning Armstrong’s victories continued, even after a decision in May 2006 that cleared Armstrong of cheating related to his 1999 title (Makitalo, 2012). When Armstrong made the decision to return to the Tour de France in 2009, the allegations were mounting even faster. In 2011, former teammate Todd Hamilton echoed allegations made by another cyclist (Floyd Landis) that he had witnessed and participated in the use of PEDs with Armstrong. Hamilton reiterated the charges in a book published in 2012. A Sports Illustrated article from that same year quoted yet another Armstrong teammate alleging that Armstrong used PEDs as early as 1995 (Makitalo, 2012).
In 2012, Armstrong got good news as the U.S. government dropped a criminal investigation of the athlete’s alleged use of PEDs. The decision, however, cleared the way for USADA to pursue sanctions against Armstrong based on testimony given by 10 former teammates. USADA was seeking to discipline Armstrong despite opposition from the world governing body for bicycling, UCI (“Lance Armstrong’s lawsuit,” 2012). In July 2012, Armstrong filed suit in Austin, Texas to prevent USADA from taking action against him, claiming USADA had no standing jurisdiction in the matter. The judge declined to let the suit proceed, suggesting the matter needed to be adjudicated by existing athletic governing bodies (“Lance Armstrong’s Lawsuit,” 2012). The federal judge gave Armstrong three days to decide if he would head to arbitration to fight the charges. On August 24, 2012 Armstrong announced via Twitter, Facebook, and his personal website that he would no longer contest USADAs actions. Later that same day USADA announced that Armstrong would be stripped of all wins since 1998 including his seven consecutive Tour de France titles and Olympic medal, banned Armstrong from cycling for life, and banned Armstrong from owning or taking any part in professional cycling. This worldwide ban included a ban from participation in mountain biking and triathlons, both of which he had competed in during his retirements from professional cycling (“Lance Armstrong Won’t,” 2012). That action, however, required the approval of UCI, which initially questioned USADAs decision, given the agency had not shared its findings with the UCI (“Lance Armstrong Won’t,” 2012).
On October 10, 2012 USADA submitted its report to UCI and released its evidence on its website (www.usantidoping.org). The 202 page “reasoned decision” contained close to 800 pages of supporting material that was the basis of the organization’s case against Armstrong. A week later, Armstrong released a statement through his foundation stating that he had stepped down as Livestrong chairman, but he would remain on the board of directors. Later that day, Nike released a statement that they had terminated its contract with the cyclist (Doping Costs, 2012). Within hours, many of Armstrong’s sponsors (including Trek, Anheuser-Bush, Oakley, and Radio Shack) released similar statements that they had dropped or would not renew existing contractual obligations with the embattled cyclist (Schrotenboer, 2012). The UCI’s final decision was released on October 22, 2012, supporting USADAs lifetime ban and stripping Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles (“The UCI Recognizes USADA,” 2012).
Image Repair Theory
Whether it is an individual or an organization, there are often times when it is necessary to engage in image repair for the fans or customer base. This section offers (a) an overview of Benoit’s image repair theory and its components and (b) a brief review of how image repair theory has been used to examine professional athletes.
Benoit (1995) developed his theory of image repair based on the assumption that such utterances are goal-oriented and seek rehabilitation of the communicator’s image or reputation. Researchers use the theory to: (a) establish the communicator’s goals, (b) identify methods of image restoration, and (c) evaluate how effective the communicator was in the effort (Benoit, 1995). Five major strategies are associated with Benoit’s Image Repair theory, including: (a) denial, (b) evading responsibility, (c) reducing offensiveness, (d) corrective action, and (e) mortification (1995). First, denial is described as a communicator’s rejection of the claims being made. Second, evading responsibility occurs when the communicator offers alternative explanations as to why something has happened. Examples of this include: (a) provocation, (b) defeasibility, (c) accident, or (d) good intentions. Third, reducing offensiveness suggests the communicator accepts some measure of responsibility, but offers reasons that would lessen the impact on their reputation. Examples of this strategy include: (a) bolstering the image of the communicator in order to lessen the impact of the harmful action; (b) minimization of the incident; (c) differentiation in order to contrast the specific act with even more serious transgressions; (d) transcendence, in which the specific act is placed in a separate light; (e) attacking the accuser; and (f) offering some form of compensation for the perceived harm caused by the communicator’s actions. Fourth, corrective action can be described as the communicator promising steps that will correct the problem. Fifth, mortification is where the communicator expresses disappointment in his or her own actions or thoughts and seeks forgiveness (Benoit, 1995).
Athletes and Image Repair.
Prominent sports figures are used to explaining their shortcomings or failures on the playing field. However, athletes have transcended into celebrities through product endorsements or extended their careers beyond the games they play (i.e., Michael Jordan starring in the movie Space Jam or Michael Strahan on the daytime TV show LIVE! With Kelly and Michael), the need for repairing damage to one’s image on and off the field has become far greater. Benoit’s theory has become a common way to explore how not just athletes (e.g., Benoit & Hanczor’s 1994 study of Tonya Harding’s image repair), but sports organizations and even entire sports leagues engage in image repair (e.g., Jerome, 2012; DiSanza, Legge, Allen, & Wilde, 2012). The increasing number of PED cases involving prominent athletes, particularly in baseball during the so-called Steroids era, has been the focus of image repair research. Smith (2012b) studied the image repair efforts Roger Clemens utilized in a 2008 interview on 60 Minutes and later that year in Congressional testimony. In both cases, Clemons was found to use denial as a primary strategy, rejecting accusations of one-time Yankees clubhouse attendant Brian McNamee that the star pitchers had used PEDs. The researcher found Clemens also made use of bolstering to talk about his work ethic and physical training regiment that allowed him to excel on the pitching mound even into his 40s. While Clemens chose to frequently attack his accusers in the 60 Minutes interview, the pitcher elected not to use that strategy before Congress, opting instead for alternative strategies including differentiation and shifting the blame. While no scientific polling was conducted after the 60 Minutes interview, a USA Today/Gallup poll after Clemens’s Congressional testimony found that 45% of those surveyed still had a favorable impression of the athlete, even though a majority (57%) thought he had lied in his testimony (Smith, 2012b).
Barry Bonds is another baseball player who has long faced accusations of PED usage, particularly during the years his home run totals surged, including his record 73 blasts in 2003. Smith (2012a) examined Bonds’s image repair efforts in 2005 after a San Francisco newspaper reported the slugger had connections to BALCO labs, a suspected source of PEDs for several star athletes. The researcher found Bonds frequently attacked his accusers in his image repair effort, including the media and former baseball star Jose Canseco. Bonds also employed denials, bolstering (that he was “a self-sacrificing team player”) and transcendence (i.e., problems with steroids less serious than other baseball scandals of the past) (Smith, 2012a). Smith concluded that Bonds’s image repair was ultimately successful, although no public opinion data was used to support that position.
Another superstar hitter of that era, Mark McGwire, was one athlete who ultimately admitted his PED usage after years of denying it (McGuire, McKinnon, & Wanta, 2012). Of particular interest to researchers in this study was that McGwire refused to address his alleged use of PEDs over a number of years. As a result, the researchers examined two separate texts nearly five years apart. In 2005, McGwire appeared before a Congressional hearing about steroid use in Major League Baseball. The researchers found McGwire made use of: (a) evasion of responsibility, (b) reducing offensiveness of event, and (c) corrective action. There was, however, no mortification expressed as McGwire declined to address his own alleged PED use (McGuire, et al., 2012). Based on surveys conducted after the hearing, it turned out McGwire’s testimony had the effect of turning people against him. A Gallup survey taken in March 2005 found McGwire had a favorability rating of 53%, down from 72% in June 2000. McGwire’s unfavorable rating had also climbed to 25% after his testimony (“Favorability,” 2010).
Five years later, McGwire was seeking a return to the sport as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and chose to finally acknowledge the use of steroids during his playing career (“Transcript,” 2010). McGuire, et al., (2012) found that the former ball player employed all five types of image repair during an interview on the Major League Baseball network, including mortification (e.g. apologizing to baseball fans, the sport, and the family of Roger Maris, who had held the home run record that McGwire had eclipsed). Yet, McGwire tried to reduce the offensiveness of the event through multiple strategies, including minimization. McGwire made the argument that his use of steroids was to help his body heal (citing his desire to help his team), but contended that steroids were not helpful to his on-field performance, as hitting a baseball was a matter of hand-eye coordination (“Transcript,” 2010). Despite his efforts, McGwire found the public was still unwilling to accept his explanations. An unscientific poll conducted by the Sporting News suggested sports fans were more likely to forgive Tiger Woods for his extra-marital affairs before forgiving McGwire for steroid use (“Who Will,” 2010). The researchers concluded that McGwire ultimately failed in his image repair attempt, noting that the passage of time before McGwire admitted his steroid use may have played a role in the level of public sentiment against him (McGuire, et al., 2012). As this study is examining how Lance Armstrong addressed allegations made against him over a number of years, McGwire’s case may offer insight to Armstrong’s ultimate success or failure at image repair.
Another prominent athlete, Marion Jones, denied PED usage for years before finally admitting it during a 2007 criminal trial. Jones had been a three-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, but the revelation resulted in Jones forfeiting all five of the medals she had won at the 2000 games. Jones also faced jail time because of lying to investigators about her PED usage as well as her role in an unrelated case. Jones chose to go on Oprah Winfrey’s syndicated television talk show in 2008 in an attempt to repair her image. Kramer (2012) found that Jones used bolstering (her self-description of as a good mother and religious person), differentiation (that her use of PEDs was a mistake rather than purposeful deceit), and transcendence (how she can help young people after what she has faced) as image repair strategies during her appearance on Winfrey’s show. Kramer also concluded that Winfrey’s follow-up questioning of Jones had the result of minimizing Jones’ image repair. While no scientific data was cited, the researcher concluded Jones’s image repair efforts had failed (Kramer, 2012). That Jones’ image repair effort was similar to McGwire’s in that both athletes had spent years denying charges of cheating, only to eventually acknowledge that they had failed to tell the truth, has implications for the study of Lance Armstrong’s image repair in 2013.
The literature review suggests athletes must on occasion avail themselves to image repair for actions both on and off the field in order to maintain their viability for product endorsements or to cross over into other forms of media. In this particular study, the researchers are interested in examining Lance Armstrong’s image repair efforts related to charges of using PEDs following his seventh Tour de France title and after USADAs August 24, 2012 decision to ban him for life from competition and strip him of all wins since 1998, including his seven consecutive Tour de France titles and his Olympic bronze medal from 2000. Thus, we pose the following research questions:
- RQ1: What image repair strategies did Lance Armstrong employ during his 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey?
Benoit (2015) suggested a multi-step approach for rhetorical critics wishing to conduct a rhetorical analysis of image repair strategies. The first step involves gathering and understanding all of the relevant background information and the context in which the statements were made. The second step involves choosing an artifact for analysis.
Armstrong sat down with Oprah Winfrey for an interview that aired over two nights in January 2013 on OWN, Winfrey’s cable television network. In this setting, Armstrong publicly acknowledged for the first time his use of PEDs during his career. Both episodes of the interview were transcribed by one of the coauthors and verified by two individuals with no knowledge of the research question. Transcription by the researchers was required as all existing transcripts (from BBC broadcasts) did not include the entire interview and the OWN network does not release transcripts from any telecast. The transcripts were then marked for occurrences of apologia based on Benoit’s image repair theory.
Benoit (2015) explained the text(s) should be divided into defensive utterances using the typology of image repair strategies. The critic then categorizes the defensive utterances and evaluates them in terms of appropriateness in countering the attack or reducing the guilt. Critics should consider the appropriateness given the apparent audience, its perceptions, and likely reactions.
Results and Discussion
In examining the transcript of the interview, the researchers found Armstrong relied primarily on expressions of mortification about his failure to be truthful and to falsely attack his accusers. Armstrong also utilized to a lesser extent (a) mortification, (b) transcendence, (c) corrective action, (d) denial, (e) provocation, and (f) differentiation.
Image Repair Strategies of Lance Armstrong
Mortification. Armstrong repeatedly utilized this strategy to explain his use of PEDs as well as efforts to hide his behavior from the cycling world and the general public. Within the first few minutes of the interview, Armstrong signaled his desire to shoulder responsibility by saying “All the fault and all the blame here falls on me” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Armstrong continued by making such observations as, “I’m paying the price, but I deserve it,” and, “I made my bed” and by describing himself as, “disgraced,” “humbled,” and “ashamed” during both days the interview aired (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Near the end, Armstrong again expressed mortification for actions, “I’m deeply sorry for what I did” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). In all these cases, Armstrong expressed mortification not only for his use of PEDs but that he had lied about his actions for so long. When discussing the culture of doping in cycling during the 2000s, Armstrong asserted he should have been a better role model when he said,
…I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture, and that’s my mistake, and that’s what I have to be sorry for, and that’s something, and the sport is now paying the price because of that. So, I am sorry for that (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013).
Another area in which Armstrong expressed mortification was about the way he had treated people who had made charges against him, including some former teammates. One example of this was when Winfrey asked Armstrong if he had bullied fellow teammates:
I was a bully in the sense that you just, that, that, I tried to control the narrative and if I didn’t like what somebody said and for whatever reasons in my own head whether I viewed that as somebody being disloyal or a friend turning on you or whatever I tried to control that. Say that that’s a lie. They are liars (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013).
In this case, Armstrong was expressing regret about the behaviors he exhibited while trying to preserve his image as a clean competitor. Armstrong acknowledged he demonstrated the same temperament when he learned about USADAs decision to pursue action against him in 2012 after a federal investigation had ended. In the interview with Winfrey, Armstrong expressed regret that he had not tried to admit his wrongdoing when given the chance (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013).
Armstrong also expressed mortification about his actions and the impact that it had on his family, particularly his kids when he said, “The older kids need to not be living with this issue in their lives.” Armstrong even expressed mortification about a photo he sent out via social media at the time of USADAs decision. The picture was of the cyclist reclining on a couch in his home in Austin surrounded by the seven framed yellow jerseys from his Tour de France triumphs, as if to taunt those who would sit in judgment of him. He said, “That dumb tweet with yellow jerseys lives forever” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Armstrong’s repeated use of mortification during the Winfrey interview suggested the athlete realized the damage that had been done to his reputation by USADAs revelations and his subsequent ban from athletic competition.
Transcendence: While mortification was Armstrong’s primary image repair strategy, other strategies emerged during the televised interview. One of the most interesting was that of transcendence. In the interview with Winfrey, Armstrong said actions used to hide his use of PED’s stemmed in part from his life experiences, beginning with the way he grew up, “My mom was young when she had me. It sort of always were [was], felt like, maybe it wasn’t reality, but we felt like we had our backs up against the wall” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Armstrong also linked the mindset that he brought to his fight with cancer in a way that perhaps later clouded his judgment about PED use and his continual denials. An example of this was when Armstrong described how he felt about his cancer experience versus his competitive experience, “I’ve been, I’ve been to a dark place that was not my doing. I’ve been to a place where I didn’t know if I would live a month, six months, a year, five years, 10 years…” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Armstrong also noted that his battle with cancer in the 1990s changed his personality, “…before my diagnosis, I was, I would say I was a competitor but I wasn’t a fierce competitor. And in an odd way, that process turned me into a person who was. It was truly win, win at all costs attitude” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). When discussing the actual use of PED’s, Armstrong noted he felt like he could make an excuse for using performance enhancers, specifically testosterone, because of his bout with testicular cancer and the possibility of death. In all of theses cases, Armstrong is seen as projecting his use of PEDs against the backdrop of his life and the potential end of it because of cancer.
Corrective Action: Armstrong told Winfrey during the interview that he would take corrective actions regarding his own behavior and treatment of others. For instance, Armstrong said he was “out of the business of calling someone a liar” when asked about other cyclists. He also expressed the difficulty he had in facing his three oldest children when coming clean with them about his use of PEDs during his competitive career. Another action the cyclist discussed was that he was seeking therapy in order to understand the competitive drive that drove him to cheat. Armstrong also noted that he would try to apologize to people he had previously accused of lying, “One of the steps of that process is to speak to those people directly and just to say to them that I’m sorry. And, uh, I was wrong and you were right” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Among those named as deserving apologies included former teammates Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis as well as two-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Armstrong indicated in the Winfrey interview many of those conversations had already taken place.
Denial. While Armstrong was taking great pains to express mortifications for his past actions, Armstrong did make use of simple denials about some of the claims being made about him. When asked by Winfrey about charges made that he had cheated when participating in the 2009 and 2010 Tour de France, Armstrong dismissed the claims, saying “absolutely not” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Armstrong also denied claims by former teammate, Christian VanVelde that Armstrong threatened to kick him off the team unless he conformed to a doping program. He also denied claims of USADA executive Travis Tygart about the scope of his PED usage and attempts to cover it up. Armstrong pointed out his actions had been geared to a single sport and that it paled in comparison to doping programs utilized by East Germany across a number of state-run sports programs during the 1970s and 1980s (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Finally, Armstrong also rejected a claim that someone with his team had offered USADA a cash contribution of $150,000, which some viewed as an effort to influence the organization’s actions.
Provocation. Even as Armstrong took responsibility for his actions, he also suggested that what he did was far from unique at that point in the sport’s history. In discussing his use of PEDs with Winfrey, Armstrong pointed out that he never felt he was alone in breaking the rules,
“I didn’t have access to thing[s] that other people didn’t have access to” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Armstrong even challenged the premise he had truly cheated at the beginning of the interview:
Armstrong: I just looked up the definition of cheat.
Armstrong: And the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have – I viewed it as – a level playing field.
Winfrey: But you knew that you were held to a higher standard. You’re Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong: I knew that – and of course hindsight is perfect. I know it a thousand times more now (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013).
Armstrong’s belief that he had no real advantage in using PEDs during the time he competed in the Tour de France suggests the athlete saw his actions through the lens of his highly competitive nature as noted above.
Differentiation: Armstrong also touched upon the penalty he received from USADA, including the ban from future competitions during the interview. The cyclist noted he had received a stiffer penalty than other cyclists that were guilty of the same charge, but they received reduced bans for cooperating with USADAs investigation, “I’m not saying that is unfair, necessarily, but I’m saying it is different” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). When Winfrey posed the question, “Do you think you got what you deserved?” Armstrong suggested again that he had been treated differently, “I deserved to be punished. I’m not sure that I deserve a death penalty” (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). Although these types of comments were only a short portion of the overall interview, it still suggests Armstrong felt resentment for USADAs comprehensive ban from any and all future sanctioned athletic competition.
This research has considered the image repair strategies utilized by champion cyclist Lance Armstrong in the wake of allegations that he had used PEDs to help win his seven Tour de France titles. Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013 was examined. The researchers found Armstrong, in the interview with Winfrey, engaged primarily in mortification and then several secondary strategies, including (a) mortification, (b) transcendence, (c) corrective action, (d) denial, (e) provocation, and (f) differentiation.
In analyzing the success of those engaging in image repair, it is necessary to consider whether such efforts met with success or failure (Benoit, 1995). It is useful to this research to consider Armstrong’s popularity prior to the events of 2012 and early 2013 and after Armstrong’s appearance on OWN. For instance, in July 2005, at the time Armstrong was clinching his final Tour de France championship, he enjoyed an exceptional level of popularity with the American public. A Gallup poll that measured the popularity of public figures found Armstrong had a 79% favorable rating compared to only 6% unfavorable (the other 15% had no opinion or said they had never heard of Armstrong) (“Favorability,” 2005). These numbers are important because there had already been accusations leveled against Armstrong about use his PEDs during his competitions. Thus, despite these allegations, Armstrong was a popular public figure.
When USADA made its case for banning Armstrong from future competitions and stripping his Tour de France titles, a national survey was conducted by Rasmussen Reports asked if people believed Armstrong was guilty of the charges being leveled. Thirty-nine percent of the subjects said they did not believe the charges against Armstrong, while 17% said they did and 44% were not sure (“17% Say,” 2012). This poll suggested that sports fans (one of Armstrong’s primary constituencies) were still on the cyclist’s side. Another significant sign of support was the increase in Livestrong sales and donation seen that day after Armstrong’s announcement in August 2012. Donations were up from the average of $3,200 to $78,000; number of donors was up from 45 to 411, and Livestrong merchandise sales were up almost threefold (Rovell, 2012).
While Armstrong enjoyed initial support after USADAs actions against him, the athlete’s own words in the Winfrey interview abruptly turned the public against him. A scientific poll conducted by the Washington Post before Armstrong’s interview with Winfrey in January 2013 asked subjects whether Armstrong should continue receiving recognition for his accomplishments in cycling. Forty-five percent in the poll responded he should while 37% said he should not (“Post Poll,” 2013). Within days after Armstrong’s television appearance, the Post posed the same question. This time, 51% said Armstrong should not receive credit for his championships while 37% thought he should still receive credit for his victories (“Washington Post,” 2013). Another scientific poll by Ispos-Reuters had even more damning results for the disgraced cyclist. Only 12% of those surveyed believed Armstrong had come forward out of remorse while 31% suggested he was motivated by his interest in repairing his image and 48% said it simply was because he could no longer deny what had happened. The same poll found that a large majority of respondents (72%) thought Armstrong’s legacy would be for the PED scandal rather than his accomplishments (only 16%) (“Ispos-Reuters,” 2013). A majority of those surveyed suggested that Armstrong’s disgrace was even greater than other infamous athletes of the 2000s, including Michael Vick, Roger Clemens, and Tiger Woods (“Ispos-Reuters,” 2013).
Armstrong’s defenders found themselves expressing anger about the athlete’s admission. ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly revealed he had received a brief phone message from Armstrong, apologizing for misleading the writer for more than a decade. Reilly’s response in an online column was that he and other Armstrong defenders had been conned:
I guess I should forgive him. I guess I should give him credit for putting himself through worldwide shame. I guess I should thank him for finally admitting his whole magnificent castle was built on sand and syringes and suckers like me. But I’m not quite ready. Give me 14 years, maybe (Reilly 2013).
Reilly was making reference to the time period he had personally covered Armstrong for Sports Illustrated and more recently ESPN, and Armstrong’s continual denials made regarding PED use. Furthermore, USADA head Travis Tygart also rejected the idea of Armstrong’s sincerity, arguing that the athlete had lied throughout his interview with Winfrey (Whitley, 2013).
Another measure, albeit unscientific, of public response to Armstrong’s image repair could be found on Twitter during and after the first night of the Winfrey interview. Some 316,000 tweets were posted about Armstrong after he admitted to PED use in the first five minutes of the interview on the first night. An analysis of the tweets classified the majority as neutral (42%) while 31% were classified as negative toward Armstrong and 27% were positive (McCann, 2013).
Application: Evaluation of Lance Armstrong’s Image Repair
Polling data showing the American public’s reaction to Armstrong’s interview in January 2013 suggests the cyclist failed in his image repair strategies. Once quick to support Armstrong, Americans now see him as a disgraced athlete after admitting to PED use after over a decade of denial. The public support Armstrong once enjoyed has abruptly vanished. It can be argued that Armstrong, much like Marion Jones and Mark McGwire before him, had damaged his image repair effort before it started through his prolonged denials. Like Jones and McGwire, Armstrong was always quick to attack his accusers and spent years trying to preserve an image of an athlete that played by the rules. Just as McGwire saw his popularity decline over time, even before his public admission, Armstrong saw his public support slowly eroding, although prior to the Winfrey interview Armstrong still enjoyed support of a majority of Americans.
The timing between damaging events and subsequent image repair has rarely been examined in this field of research. Typically, businesses and politicians will quickly engage in image repair to limit financial or political damage. An exception to this would be President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, who denied having sexual relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky for more than one year before eventually being forced to acknowledge that a relationship had indeed occurred. The researchers found that while Clinton’s job performance rating was not impacted, the President’s personal approval rating had declined dramatically after the disclosure (Blaney & Benoit, 2001). Research on athlete image repair efforts collected in Blaney, Lippert and Smith (2012) found that many of the athletes (from Michael Vick to Tiger Woods) engaged in image repair over periods of time that ranged from a matter of days to a few months after the initial action or charge. In the cases of Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, and now Lance Armstrong, we have examples of athletes who engaged in long-term deception before coming forward to acknowledge their offenses. The findings in these cases have highlighted the importance of timely image repair rather than digging in and fighting accusations that individuals will eventually have to acknowledge.
Another issue emerging from Armstrong’s prolonged delay in acknowledging his actions was the apparent impact it has on using mortification as an image repair strategy. Benoit (1995) has noted mortification as a particularly useful strategy for those engaged in image repair. Further, Benoit (1997) noted celebrities, including well-known athletes, can have an easier time in achieving image repair because of the public goodwill they have accumulated through their fame (e.g., Hugh Grant’s image repair after his involvement with a prostitute). Just as McGwire, Armstrong engaged extensively in mortification as a primary image repair strategy. In doing so, Armstrong diminished the effectiveness of mortification as an image repair strategy because of the prolonged denials.
While several other image repair strategies were employed over the course of the interview, they were all secondary to Armstrong’s use of mortification. However, despite his expressions of regret, Armstrong still sought to deny some of the claims that had been made against him (e.g., using PEDs during the 2009 and 2010 Tour De France races). Also notable among these secondary strategies was the use of transcendence, in which the athlete talked about his belief that his ultra-competitiveness was driven by his childhood and his bout with cancer, and therefore influenced the judgments he made about using PEDs while competing. That competitive nature may also explain why Armstrong also chose to use provocation in his image repair, as he tried to justify his actions as not being out of the norm at that time in the sport. He argued, “I didn’t invent the culture, but I didn’t try to stop the culture” and later stated, “…the culture was what it was (“Oprah and Lance,” 2013). The apparent existence of a PED culture at the time is supported by the facts: During Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins, only five cyclists that stood on the Tour de France podium along with Lance Armstrong from 1999 to 2005 had not admitted to or tested positive for PED use as of 2013. Therefore, more than three-quarters (76%) of the podium winners during Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins were using PEDs (McLean, Tse, & Waananen, 2013).
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