There were moments of seemingly sincere contrition as Lance Armstrong described his years of doping and lying in the interview with Oprah Winfrey. It was difficult for Armstrong to describe his suggestion to his son that the 13-year-old boy should "stop defending your dad." And Armstrong was clearly shocked when, in a FaceTime conversation, he saw that his mother was a "total wreck."
But these moments came in a carefully prepared package of admissions designed to minimize the legal repercussions of Armstrong's confessions, just one step in a multi-faceted strategy to recapture a portion of a lost legacy.
At least five times during the Winfrey interview, Armstrong used the word "process" to describe what he was doing with the interview. The use of the word "process" was no accident, and it clearly includes more than making a series of telephone calls to former friends and associates whom he had bullied. The process includes much more, and it is the result of what must have been hours and days of preparation for the interview and formulation of what he hopes will be his comeback program.
The investigators at USADA concluded that Armstrong's doping program was the "most professional and sophisticated in the history of sport," and Armstrong's confessional package showed some of the same high levels of professionalism and sophistication. In his responses to Winfrey's questions and in his other actions the past several days, Armstrong and his team of lawyers and advisers have embarked on a bold and proactive effort to resolve the myriad problems that result from his admissions. Here is a sampling of what they are doing:
• As Armstrong taped the Winfrey interview, his attorneys were negotiating with senior officials at the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve the whistleblower lawsuit filed in 2010 by Floyd Landis. The suit is the greatest monetary threat to Armstrong's personal fortune and could result in Armstrong refunding $30 million in bonuses he collected from the U.S. Postal Service. A settlement could save Armstrong millions of dollars. According to a N.Y. Daily News report, the federal authorities are sufficiently interested that they've asked for additional time to negotiate.
• Armstrong and his team are also working to recapture his endorsement contract with Nike. Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight is reported to be considering a restoration of a deal with Armstrong. Knight refused to cancel deals with Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant when they faced serious allegations and might wish to join Armstrong in his comeback effort. Would other sponsors who dumped Armstrong (RadioShack, Easton Bell, Trek, Anheuser-Busch) join Nike?
• Armstrong denied any agreement with federal prosecutors on possible perjury charges. Nearly a year ago, on the Friday before the Super Bowl, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Andre Birotte, announced that the Obama administration was dropping its investigation of Armstrong, an announcement that stunned the agents working on the probe. It appeared to many to be an election-year announcement designed to avoid a fight with Armstrong's vast constituency of cancer survivors and timed to avoid public scrutiny. Armstrong's confession opens the possibility of criminal charges, but Armstrong was clearly secure in his statement to Winfrey that no one would contradict his assertion that there was no deal with the feds. Birotte has steadfastly refused to discuss his decision on Armstrong.
• Armstrong avoided specific admissions of misconduct in his earlier attacks on people like Betsy and Frankie Andreu and Emma O'Reilly, who angered Armstrong during his years of denial of use of performance-enhancing drugs. There is nothing in the interview about the Andreus and O'Reilly that would qualify as admissible evidence in defamation cases against Armstrong. He joked that he may have called Betsy Andreu "crazy" and a "b----," but he never "called her fat." When Winfrey asked about suing O'Reilly, Armstrong smirked and said that he could not possibly remember all the lawsuits he filed. His responses on those questions were conceived, rehearsed and executed as part of an attempt to minimize legal repercussions.
• Given an opportunity to admit that Betsy Andreu was truthful when she said that Armstrong admitted while he was hospitalized for cancer treatment in Indiana that he had used PEDs, Armstrong ducked the issue. "I am not going to take that on," he told Winfrey. His response was clearly part of a plan to avoid giving any evidence to the Andreus, a part of his meticulous preparation for Winfrey's questions.
• Early in the interview, Armstrong told Winfrey his answers would come only in the form of telling her "what is true and not true." Using this format, Armstrong avoided complete sentences that could be used against him in litigation from the Times of London (seeking to recapture a libel payment), an insurance company seeking to recapture millions lost to Armstrong in an arbitration and other claims. Although his attorneys most certainly advised Armstrong not to do the Winfrey interview, once he decided to do the interview, they prepared him with answers to anticipated questions that minimized the damage.
• When asked whether he had lost everything as the result of the proof of his doping, Armstrong replied only that he had lost "all future income." He avoided embarrassment in future interrogations in which his adversaries would have access to his financial records. It was another sign of his detailed preparation for the interview, and it demonstrates that he is preparing to use his fortune to settle with those he has bullied and attacked.
• Winfrey had mastered the facts of Armstrong's doping, and her questions were comprehensive and well formulated, but Armstrong was ready for all of them. It is clear that Armstrong and his team of advisers did not underestimate Winfrey's skills and worked hard to prepare for the interview.
• Armstrong's statements that he did no doping during his 2009-10 comeback and that he wished he had negotiated with USADA instead of suing the agency are the kinds of statements that he can use to his advantage in the legal disputes that will now begin. They are not as significant as his admission of what he did to win seven Tour de France championships, but they will serve as evidence in any future trials that he is a changed man. His assertion on USADA will allow his legal team to argue that he was treated differently from other cyclists who cheated and were suspended for only six months, whereas Armstrong was banned for life.
Even in the face of numerous lawsuits from former friends and sponsors and the slim possibility of criminal prosecution, Armstrong's performance in the Winfrey interview was not merely defensive. He was seeking to regain control over his legacy. His confession is not the result of contrition or a spiritual awakening; it is part of a package of actions and maneuvers that are designed not to help others, but to help Armstrong.
Can it work? It is likely to work better than it appears at this lowest point in the Armstrong story. It is possible that Armstrong and his impressive team of lawyers will, step by step, accomplish something that did not appear possible when USADA issued its damning report. Apologies, monetary settlements and a renewed sponsorship or two will begin to add up. The folks at Livestrong may soon face a decision on whether to restore Armstrong to a role in the work of the charity.
The same focus that kept Armstrong on course in the mountains of France will keep him on course in his quest to restore some of his legacy.