Jossey-Bass published the book The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership by Gail Fairhurst and Robert Sarr back in 1996. In the book, the authors talk about the ability to ‘manage meaning’ through the use of discursive tools, i.e. stories, contrasts, metaphors, traditions, spin, artifacts and slogans. These tools work as a potent method to frame situations. Lance Armstrong has been all over the media the past days due to his confessions to Oprah. It reflects the biggest and probably the most influential story ever in the sport of cycling related to one person. At the same time, Oprah’s interview with Lance Armstrong portrayed a sports scenario, which marked a crossroad in solving problems in professional sports. Armstrong’s confessions placed emphasis on what went on in the years before the confession and left room for speculations about how Armstrong’s confessions will affect the sports world and in particular cycling in the years to come; more importantly the interview revealed that the masses were framed for years to believe that Lance Armstrong was a ‘true sports hero’ winning 7 Tour de France titles on ‘pure will power’. THAT WAS NOT THE FACT!
Analyzing the storyline used to build Armstrong’s sports brand over the years, the conclusion tells us that sport fans, media, commercial partners, and other stakeholders worldwide have been ‘blinded’ up until Armstrong’s confessions. And even though Armstrong has revealed that he did take banned substances (EPO, blood-doping, and other performance enhancing drugs), the interview still left the impression that there are more details to the ‘real story’, which would have been interesting to hear in the process of revealing all the ‘toxic’ elements of professional cycling in the period when the ‘doping engine’ was running at full speed.
Here are some interesting contrasts, which have surrounded Armstrong’s sports brand and added to the story. His mythic and ideal story, by which Armstrong (according to his confessions in the interview) was swept away in momentum of his own iconic status as a sports star, is partly shaped by the contrasts between ‘living vs. dying’ and ‘winning vs. losing’. Being a cancer victim and turning that into a status as a successful professional athlete proficient enough to win 7 Tour de France titles leads to a superhero. Denials and lawsuits in response to accusations about the fact that Armstrong’s superior athletic performances were achieved with the use of performance enhancing drugs led to a situation where Armstrong could continue his endeavors, i.e. boosting the strength of his sports brand via money-spinning endorsement deals and charity work through the Livestrong Foundation, without being caught. Instead of agreeing with the accusations at an earlier stage, Armstrong kept repeating his lies numerous times and for that reason professional cycling find it hard to get rid of the ‘doping shadow’ although the sport may be clean now and hence distanced from the professional and systematic use of doping seen in Armstrong’s era.
Armstrong’s apologies in regards to his ‘cheating’ is a start but the timing is not good – it’s too late. Too many have been misled for many years and his confessions are not as revealing as many people wish them to be (in reference to the impact on the entire organizational structure in professional cycling). Some people are also left wondering if Armstrong was ‘doped’ in 2009 and 2010? The level of mistrust caused by Armstrong’s behaviors motivated these thoughts. Armstrong hid behind the argument that he did not believe that he could win the titles without turning to doping because doping was so invasive in professional cycling at the time. Armstrong for sure did not create this culture but he did not make the efforts to stop it either and in that regard, he could have ‘come out of the closet’ earlier. Now, Armstrong is left in a vacuum where he has been faced with a ‘lifetime ban’ and lost his profitable endorsement deals and the touch with his passionate work in relation to the Livestrong Foundation. Given the fact that ‘he cheated’ as an athlete in competitions, his ‘end-of-career’ endorsement potential has been zeroed. Although Armstrong probably wanted to apologize to save some of his brand equity, the business world must have lost confidence in him. Other athletes caught in misconduct, e.g. Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick, came back as subjects for endorsement deals but I suppose that commercial stakeholders will be more suspicious towards Armstrong due to the fact that his misconduct was directly linked to athletic competitions whereas behaviors of Vick, Bryant and Woods were associated with off-field misconduct.
The emotional equity connected to iconic sport stars often blurs an athlete’s character and that has also been the case in relation to Lance Armstrong. For years, Armstrong’s deception has been ignored and hidden behind his storyline and related spin via focus on remarkable athletic performances, massive corporate appeal and his postmodern celebrity status. The sports world needs heroes and for years professional cycling had a hero personified by Lance Armstrong. Nike and other corporate brands have pushed Armstrong’s brand evolvement until the truth and penetrating rumors about Armstrong’s past caught up with them. Sport stars must set high values regarding performances on the field (and preferably off the field) and if that goal cannot be met it will definitely hurt their ROI potential. Lance Armstrong must look back at a position when he was among the most powerful people in sports (according to Business Week). Now, research conducted by consulting company ‘The Marketing Arm’ shows that Armstrong’s image popularity has dropped significantly, click here for more information. From a position as no. 65 in 2008 (out of consumer opinions on approximately 2,900 celebrities), Armstrong’s position had dropped to no. 2,625 in November 2012. So it mirrors a situation where it will be tough for Armstrong to restore his image and go back to being a convincing endorser.