The Lance Armstrong saga took a new and seemingly final turn this morning when Armstrong removed “7-time Tour de France champion” from the description field on his Twitter profile. The move followed yesterday’s decision by the International Cycling Union to cooperate with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and strip Armstrong of his 7 titles.
Though yesterday’s decision wasn’t a surprise and Armstrong’s downward trajectory has been in progress for some time, losing endorsement deals and last week stepping down as the head of the Live Strong Foundation that bears his name, today’s edit to his Twitter profile might represent the bottom of his drop—it was his first public concession of distance from his legacy.
So far Armstrong has insisted on his innocence despite a mountain of evidence that he not only doped but served as the Pied Piper of doping, getting his teammates to engage in the kind of complex blood extraction and doping techniques you’d expect to see in the “Mission Impossible” movies if they were about biking. Yesterday UIC announced the Tour de France will officially wipe Armstrong’s name from its books, the Olympic Committee will consider revoking Armstrong’s medal, he lost Oakley, the last of his corporate sponsors, and he may have to return trophy and performance bonuses worth at least $12.5 million.
While removing Tour de France champion from his Twitter profile isn’t an acknowledgement of guilt, it is a concession that he’s no longer allowed to be Armstrong the hero—now he’s just a regular guy with 5 kids, fighting cancer, who swims and bikes when he can.
For someone as famous as Armstrong, it’s unlikely that he’ll simply disappear from the public. From here there seem to be two directions he can go: We can start the countdown to a suicide or a complete meltdown spiral of abuse and despair, as one of my colleagues is betting. Or there’s the other option, which I think is more likely: that today’s nadir marks the perfect jumping-off point for one of the most epic celebrity redemptions of all time.
We forgive celebrities for their falls from grace when they pick themselves back up—provided they’ve paid some penance in the cultural penalty box. Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, hell even Chris Brown, have been able to redeem themselves after some hardcore womanizing and abuse. Comparatively speaking, cheating at sports shouldn’t be an insurmountable PR obstacle. And what’s more, Armstrong wasn’t just an athlete or a pop star or even a president, all of which are sort of out of reach of our everyday empathy. He was a hero because of how he related to the banal hardships of daily life—he represented the transcendence of the mere mortal in all of us up to the mantle of the gods. This is what Live Strong was all about and why a nation of people who don’t give a crap about biking started wearing the yellow bracelet of its top competitor.
Then again, while you’d think all this might make Armstrong poised for redemption, BuzzFeed cites a report that indicates the psychological mechanism that allows us to forgive celebs hinges on “‘moral decoupling’—the act of judging a notable figure’s morals separately from their actions.” If “decoupling” is key to forgiveness, an Armstrong redemption might be tricky since the whole nature of our adoration for him is relating to his drama and taking a personal stake in his glory. When it comes to our own code of ethics, we don’t decouple our morals from our actions. The resentment stemming from our personal investment in Armstrong’s story could actually keep us from forgiving.
If that’s the case, my colleague might be right and we can start the disaster stopwatch.