Keeping Score

Should Nike Be Sticking by Lance Armstrong?

The company continues to endorse Lance Armstrong. But at what cost?

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Eric Gaillard / Reuters

Lance Armstrong cycles alongside teammate George Hincapie during the 19th stage of the 92nd Tour de France, July 22, 2005.

In August, Lance Armstrong put up his hands and said he would no longer contest the doping charges that the United States Anti-Doping Agency have brought against him, basically arguing that it was a waste of his time. No matter that he’d be stripped of his Tour de France titles. “I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours,” Armstrong said. Nike, his long-time sponsor, and maker of the 84 million-plus Livestrong bracelets that have been sold throughout the globe, said they were sticking by him:

“We are saddened that Lance Armstrong may no longer be able to participate in certain competitions and his titles appear to be impacted,” Nike spokeswoman Mary Remuzzi said in an emailed statement. ”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.”

On Wednesday, as we now know, things got much worse for Armstrong. A USADA report on Armstrong’s doping habits included eyewitness testimony from eleven former teammates, and gory details about refrigerated blood, secret roadside meetings and canceled races to avoid drug testing. And yet Nike’s position did not change. The company just re-relesesed that statement.

(MORE: Why USADA’s Case Against Lance Armstrong Is Compelling)

This stance inspired plenty of social media outrage. “Hey @nike your support of Ance just cost you a customer, and many, many more.,” wrote one user. @thebikeshow tweeted: “Wow. @nike is standing by the athlete guilty of the biggest fraud in the history of the sport. Cheat to win. Just Do It!” Owen Gibson, the Olympics editor for the Guardian newspaper in Great Britain, shared a tweet from Paralympian Robin Williams, a British footballer: “I won’t be buying anything @nike again if they stand by Lance Armstrong. #disgrace.”

Sure, a few angry tweets may not negatively impact Nike’s bottom line. And Nike is heavily invested in Armstrong. Still, the company’s decision to support Armstrong surprises some sports business experts. Nike is one of the most important sports brands in the world. As such, it’s supposed to represent honesty and fairness. Unless you believe Armstrong is a victim of a conspiracy to bring him down, it’s pretty clear, at this point, that Armstrong violated these principles. So what, exactly, does Nike stand for? “I thought they would have dropped him, to be frank,” says Robert Tuchman, a sports marketing consultant based in New York.

Nike is sending mixed messages, a problem for any brand. The company might make some of the best sportswear on the planet, and strive to do good around the world. But now, Nike is getting attention for this anti-doping ad, from 2001. “Everyone wants to know what I’m on,” says Armstrong.  “What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”


MORE: Moral DeCoupling: How Consumers Justify Supporting A Tarnished Brand