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Lance Cuts His Losses

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"In man's struggle against the world, bet on the world."
--Franz Kafka

Lance Armstrong has declared, "Enough is enough." After battling allegations for more than a decade that he used blood transfusions to boost his performance, he has thrown in the towel and will no longer contest the charges brought against him, this time by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The consequences of his surrender are severe. He will be stripped of all seven of his record-setting Tour de France titles, as well as his Olympic medal, and he will be banned for life from all future "elite-level" sports.

I have no idea whether Mr. Armstrong is guilty or innocent. His defenders argue that he has passed every one of the 500 drug tests he has undergone; that he has survived multiple previous inquiries; that there is "zero physical evidence" that he has ever cheated. The case against him consists chiefly of the disputed findings of a new type of blood test and several professional cyclists, including former teammates, who say they witnessed Mr. Armstrong taking illegal substances.

What I'm familiar with, given my work as a crisis consultant, is seeing prominent individuals and even major corporations buckling under the psychic and financial weight of ongoing investigation. The behind-the-scenes reality is that very few people or organizations have the grit, endurance, and deep pockets to prevail in the face of a high-profile government investigation, regardless of their guilt or innocence. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule: Billionaire businessman Ken Lagone and former NYSE chairman Dick Grasso boldly faced down Eliot Spitzer's reign of terror. Tech investor Frank Quattrone made it through three trials -- and national scorn -- to ultimately reverse federal charges that he obstructed justice in what was the securities industry's highest-profile criminal case since Michael Milken.

But I have found that most of these cases follow the familiar arc of the accused 1) feeling initial shock and anger over the allegation; 2) then, expressing a steely resolve to fight back; 3) followed by months or years of grinding legal and PR sparring; and 4) finally, capitulation and settlement. "I'm spending all of my time with lawyers" is the client lament I most often hear. And how many of us have the financial resources of a Ken Lagone to see it through to the end?

Even victory can be bittersweet. Upon being acquitted of all counts of larceny and fraud, including alleged links to the New York mob, Reagan administration Labor Secretary Ray Donovan famously asked, "Which office do I go to get my reputation back?" The late Senator Ted Stevens was recently absolved of corruption charges -- but too late. Amidst all the negative publicity, he lost the Senate seat he had held for nearly 40 years and didn't survive to see his name cleared.

Should defendants decide to fight, the odds are not in their favor. For example, according to the U.S. Attorneys' Annual Statistical Report, in 2010 federal attorneys enjoyed an astounding 91-percent conviction rate in white-collar-crime prosecutions, with 64 percent of convicted defendants sentenced to prison.

It is no wonder that fewer and fewer defendants choose to slug it out in court. In his provocative book The Death of the American Trial, Northwestern law professor Robert Burns reports that today, a tiny 1.8 percent of civil lawsuits actually go to trial. He blames the excessive time and cost of discovery and jury selection, and an explosion in pre-trial bureaucracy and expense. What is lost, Professor Burns argues, are not only the facts that never come to light but the sanctity of a forum where both sides are heard equally. "The disciplined attention that is focused on the facts of the situation in an American courtroom occurs almost nowhere else in the world." Professor Burns says the trend away from trials promotes the power of faceless bureaucrats, which he describes as "elites behind closed doors."

Where Lance Armstrong has been effective is in delaying this moment. For 12 years he battled cycling's governing bodies to a draw, allowing him the time to win more races, promote his Live Strong foundation, become a celebrity endorser, make a lot of money, and grow his brand. This does not amount to total vindication, but it is a tactical victory of sorts. And now I believe Mr. Armstrong has done the sensible thing (and perhaps the only thing he could have done): silence the corrosive drip-drip-drip of allegation, preserve whatever business and philanthropic interests he can, and get on with his life.

It is ironic that a man who overcame cancer and seven times outraced 200 world-class cyclists across 3,000 miles of mountainous terrain could not escape the reach of testing-body bureaucrats. My guess is Lance Armstrong would agree with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who once quipped, "I've never had problems with drugs. I've had problems with the police."