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Role change

Sports | It will be a terrible blow to many people if it turns out that cycling great Lance Armstrong was a doper, but there could be a silver lining

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

The nation's preeminent sports columnists are wringing their hands. If doping allegations against seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong prove true, what will become of the thousands of cancer patients who draw strength from his story? If the man who overcame a brain tumor to become the most successful cyclist ever is a lying, cheating fraud, might that birth cynicism in the minds of people once filled with hope?

It's a valid question, one no doubt weighing heavy on Armstrong's mind. He recently completed what may prove his final Tour ride and has now secured legal counsel to guide him through a forthcoming investigation. Whether guilty or innocent, the charges alone will do nothing but sour the image of the most respected athlete in the country, a man responsible for raising millions of dollars in cancer research and providing resources and inspiration to help thousands beat the disease.

Much global good could well result if officials clear Armstrong of the charges levied by his former teammate Floyd Landis, a convicted doper himself. But should the charges stick, should Food and Drug Administration agent Jeff Novitzky prove that the cycling great juiced his way to victory, could any worldwide benefit emerge from that?

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On the heels of two sparkling sports megastars suffering public image collapses-namely, swimmer Michael Phelps and golfer Tiger Woods-a third such scandal could awaken people to the folly of elevating athletes to angelic status. An Armstrong fall from grace would carry more weight in that regard than those of Phelps or Woods, neither of whom ever claimed moral superiority. For Armstrong, the moral high ground is central to his appeal, his brand, his identity.

In the minds of millions of fans, Armstrong is more than great. He is good, and now intent on employing that reputation to avoid undue scrutiny. "As long as we have a legitimate and credible and fair investigation, we'll be happy to cooperate, but I'm not going to participate in any kind of witch hunt," he said. "I've done too many good things for too many people."

Superstar scandals

Few athletes in history have risen to Armstrong's height of role model status. But the higher the standing, the longer the fall. Here's a look at scandals surrounding some of sport's most beloved stars:

"Shoeless" Joe Jackson: The White Sox slugger maintained a reputation as a gentle and lovable simpleton until a grand jury unearthed a conspiracy among Jackson and seven teammates to throw the 1919 World Series in exchange for bribes. The players were banned from the game, forever linking Jackson's legacy to the scandal.

Pete Rose: The man known as Charlie Hustle and revered for his tireless work ethic soured such public favor by gambling on baseball while manager of the Reds in the 1980s. The all-time career hits leader was issued a lifetime ban from the game, a punishment that has barred him from entrance to the Hall of Fame and embroiled him in bitter controversy.

Michael Jordan: The most celebrated athlete of his generation took a substantial PR hit when he was spotted gambling in Atlantic City the night before a playoff game with the New York Knicks in 1993. Subsequent reports surfaced of gambling addiction and infidelity. But the six-time NBA title winner weathered the bad press and never lost his rosy public image.

Sammy Sosa: The smiling Cubs slugger could do no wrong in the minds of smitten baseball fans until he was caught swinging a corked bat in 2003 and later implicated for using performance-enhancing drugs. His reputation has never recovered.

Kobe Bryant: A young, level-headed superstar and family man, Bryant's public stock plummeted in 2003 amid allegations of sexual assault. He admitted to an extramarital affair but insisted it was consensual. Authorities later dropped the charges, and Bryant regained much of his popularity, if not his good-guy appeal.

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