by Steve Adubato, PhD
There are so many problems with the Lance Armstrong “apology” in the Oprah Winfrey interview this week. Armstrong, who for years had vehemently denied his use of performance-enhancing drugs, after winning and then being stripped of 7 Tour de France victories, finally decided it was time to come clean. But did he really?
Just consider some of the reasons why Armstrong’s apology falls woefully short and what business professionals can learn from this reputation-crumbling debacle:
- It took Armstrong way too long to admit that he used performance-enhancing drugs. One of the keys to effectively apologizing is that you have to communicate the apology quickly. You have a narrow window in which most people will give you the benefit of the doubt. A few days, weeks, months--but over a decade after countless, adamant, denials? It doesn’t work, Lance. Armstrong passed on every opportunity to come clean because of his arrogance and hubris. Therefore, no matter what he said in the Oprah interview, his apology just doesn’t cut it.
- Armstrong needed to apologize for so much more than deceiving fans, sponsors, regulatory bodies and countless others who believed in him. It’s bad enough that he won the Tour de France by cheating; but what’s worse is that he viciously attacked the character of those who knew him best and who told the truth (many under oath) about his drug use. He called them liars and in the case of his masseuse, who had firsthand knowledge of Armstrong’s drug use, he called her a “whore.” It’s one thing to take performance-enhancing drugs to increase your odds of winning, but how can any decent person consciously destroy the reputation of others who simply told the truth when asked about Armstrong’s drug use? How do those people recoup their reputations because of what Armstrong said about THEM?
- Lance Armstrong’s lack of humility throughout this entire process has made it difficult to feel sorry for him. He took a highly aggressive and vicious communication approach, attacking his accusers. He admitted bullying his fellow teammates, allegedly threatening them to keep his secret. By showing little or no humility for over a decade, Armstrong makes it hard for people to generate any empathy for him today.
- Timing--why now? Apologies work when the person apologizing has sincere motives. What exactly are Lance Armstrong’s motives for doing the Oprah interview? Is it because the statue of limitations on certain legal cases has ended? Is it because he wants to compete in triathlons and is looking for sponsors? And if it’s true that part of his reason for apologizing is that he reached an agreement with certain regulatory bodies to name other athletes who were allegedly using, such an act speaks for itself.
- Finally, while Armstrong’s public brand is in tatters, he has also put at risk the work of the LIVESTRONG Foundation, which he created. Even though he resigned from the board (at their request), it is impossible to separate Lance Armstrong from those yellow wristbands. The problem is many of the early dollars to create LIVESTRONG came from Armstrong and his ill-gotten gains. Further, he has always been the name and the face of LIVESTRONG. Therefore, his scandal is THEIR scandal. When he created the foundation, he knew that even though LIVESTRONG’s mission was a good one, its premise was on shaky ground because he never disclosed to his partners at the foundation how he achieved his success. How does he truly apologize to all those cancer survivors and well-meaning employees and volunteers of the LIVESTRONG Foundation? I say he can’t. His so-called apology on Oprah is way too little and absurdly too late.