Charity on Steroids

Illustration by Matthew Woodson

Imagine that a friend who works in the entertainment business comes to you with a plan. She’s just pulled through a life-threatening illness and now wants to take her career to the next level. That means putting herself through a little “medical program,” as she puts it, but she assures you, accurately, that such practices are common in her line of work. Still, you’re skeptical: The measures she’s planning on taking could be bad for her as well as for any little girl who might view her as a role model. Your friend, though, doesn’t seem to register this objectionand asks you to consider one other factor: She thinks she can really excel at her craft if she seeks this edge, becoming rich and famous in the process. And she intends to use her fame to raise millions of dollars to help people suffering from the disease that almost killed her. It’s true these charitable acts would be at least partially self-serving, but she’s pretty sure her success will allow her to improve or even save hundreds if not thousands of lives.

Now imagine it’s 1997, and your friend is Lance Armstrong. Would you tell him not to go through with his plan?

If you’re an obsessed sports fan, there’s no excusing the systematic blood doping that Armstrong allegedly engaged in during his incredible seven-year run of Tour de France victories. Houston jurors, after all, didn’t cut former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay any slack for juicing his company’s books because he also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local NAACP chapter and Holocaust museum. By this logic, the punishments Armstrong has suffered—stripped of his Tour wins, dropped last Wednesday by longtime sponsor Nike—were coming to him. But that logic is also a little wobbly. In a case like Lay’s, there are real victims: the defrauded investors and the thousands of employees who lost their nest eggs and their jobs. Armstrong, on the other hand, won races that just would have been won by other riders—some of whom, it’s safe to say, had a “medical program” of their own.

With Armstrong’s offenses properly framed, the second part of the moral equation becomes the more important one: Did he do enough good to make the cheating worth it? Your answer will be a subjective one, of course, but here are some relevant facts: His Livestrong Foundation—created as the Lance Armstrong Foundation two years before his first Tour win—has raised nearly $500 million to fight cancer; it’s rated A- by the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch. Roughly 82 percent of the nearly $36 million that Livestrong reportedly spent last year went to programs rather than overhead. That’s impressive for any nonprofit and better, for example, than the beneficent St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which is rated B+ by Charity Watch and passes along only 81 percent of its donations to research and treatment. Among charities started by sports stars, Livestrong is in a class by itself, operating with financial efficiency “virtually unheard of in athlete charities,” as ESPN The Magazine’s Shaun Assael recently wrote. Nike, while deciding Armstrong, the tainted rider, is now bad for its image, has said it will continue to support his philanthropy.

Armstrong, meanwhile, has stepped down as Livestrong’s chairman but will remain on its board. This past weekend, Livestrong held a charity ride in Austin that was expected to raise $2 million. Imagine how much smaller that haul would’ve been had Armstrong not made himself a champion by doping his blood. Would you have stopped him?

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Charity on Steroids