From Hero to Zero

Lance  Armstrong, one of the most famous American athletes, has failed. His career as a competitive athlete already in shambles from a doping scandal, Armstrong fell farther from grace. He announced he was stepping down as the chairman of Livestrong, his cancer foundation, and Nike, the sports brand most closely associated with his racing days, was among several companies severing ties with him.

Armstrong’s resignation from the foundation came a week after the United States Anti-Doping Agency made public its evidence in a case against him, saying he was at the center of an organized doping program on his Tour de France-winning teams. Armstrong said in a statement that he wanted “to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career.”

Nike’s decision to abandon its deal with Armstrong was more curious because the company had stood by him for years as he fended off doping accusations. It publicly came to his defense only week before the latest news. Nike has a record of standing by athletes whose reputations have been damaged, such as Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, even as other sponsors shunned them. The company bet heavily on Armstrong years ago as he battled cancer, and it embraced him so wholly that it named a building after him on its campus in Beaverton, Ore.

Nike declined to discuss why it made such an abrupt about-face after 15 years of working with Armstrong. The company called Armstrong’s longtime agent, Bill Stapleton, and told him it was ending their agreement, thought to be worth millions of dollars. The company did not leave room for negotiation.

“We were Nike family,” Stapleton said in an interview.

The allegations against Armstrong undermined his success as a cyclist and prompted a small group to protest outside Nike’s headquarters. In recent years, Nike stopped sponsoring Marion Jones and Justin Gatlin, two sprinters entangled in doping scandals.

“When you look at these relationships, the primary factor you choose an endorser for is their performance,” said Jim Andrews, senior vice president at IEG, a sponsorship consultant. “The primary benefit Tiger brings to Nike is his performance as a golfer. When he had his indiscretions, you could decide that he was still going to perform and excuse the character issue. With Lance, you don’t have that avenue because everything he did as a cyclist has been discredited.”

Was this the right move for Nike?

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