Lance Armstrong waved the white flag Thursday in his long-running legal fight against U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) allegations that performance enhancing drugs aided his climb to the pinnacle of cycling.
The seven-time Tour de France winner refused to take part in a USADA arbitration proceeding where the doping regulator said it planned to present eyewitness testimony from former teammates that Armstrong took part in a doping conspiracy throughout his dominant career.
"When your back is against the wall and you kind of know you're in trouble, maybe your best option is to at least have some plausible deniability," said Scott A. Andresen, founder of Andresen & Associates P.C. and chairman of The Chicago Bar Association Sports Law Committee.
Andresen and other local lawyers said Armstrong's uncharacteristic white flag amounts to damage control, despite USADA efforts to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him from the sport at age 40.
Facing long odds in an arbitration hearing that could dampen his celebrity status, lawyers said Armstrong chose a route that limits the tarnish to his legacy to public speculation and nonspecific USADA accusations — at least for now.
"This was kind of a strategic capitulation in which (Armstrong) avoids all of the damaging evidence and he can still proclaim his innocence, which he does quite well," said ESPN legal analyst Lester E. Munson Jr.
In a statement, Armstrong called the USADA's two-year investigation "an unconstitutional witch hunt" and the arbitration hearing he refused to take part in "one-sided and unfair."
Timothy L. Epstein, a partner and chairman of the sports law practice group at SmithAmundsen LLC, said Armstrong might be right about the odds he faced in arbitration, but administrative law works the same way for everyone.
"It's a much more uphill battle for the athlete in these administrative law proceedings than it would be in court as a defendant," Epstein said.
"There's such a strong misconception in the public that a finding of liability or guilt in an administrative law proceeding is tantamount to a finding of guilt or liability in a U.S. court, and that simply is not the case."
In addition to an unfavorable venue for the fight, Munson said Armstrong faced a strong opponent in the form of former teammate George Hincapie.
Hincapie, the lone teammate at Armstrong's side for all seven Tour de France victories who the USADA said planned to testify, "is an articulate and persuasive individual who would have been a powerful witness," Munson said.
But there may be a flaw in thinking Armstrong's move means Hincapie's testimony will remain unheard, Munson said.
The International Cycling Union (UCI), the world governing body for the sport that ultimately holds the power to strip Armstrong of his Tour de France victories, said the USADA must present "a reasoned decision explaining" why Armstrong should lose his legacy.
Munson said that presents "a golden opportunity" for Travis T. Tygart, USADA's CEO, to lay out the testimony initially planned for arbitration.
"(Tygart) is the kind of guy, I think, who will come out with a definitive statement of his evidence," Munson said.
"He's a natural kind of crime fighter and I think he'll continue to swing away at Armstrong."
In a letter to the USADA's general counsel on Thursday, Armstrong's Texas-based lawyers said the USADA does not hold jurisdiction in the case and should turn it over to the UCI and Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Eldon L. Ham, an IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law adjunct professor of sports law and society, said Armstrong's decision to "cut and run" leaves his legacy to be determined by individual opinion rather than a legal proceeding.
"All of a sudden electing today to stand on principle makes you wonder how much is on the other side and how much he avoids being subjected to in the press or otherwise by taking this stand," Ham said.
"And it saddens me to even wonder any of that … given the stand he took (raising money for cancer research) and coming back from cancer and all of those things. Because they're good things to look up to."