Time will tell whether self-described "bully" Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey can repair the good name he lost when the United States Anti-Doping Agency revealed the truth behind his carefully crafted "narrative" of survival and sports glory. For me, to forgive Mr. Armstrong or not isn't the issue. Instead, Mr. Armstrong's fall illustrates how effectively we regulate Olympic movement athletics in the United States, and how that model for regulation can enhance the integrity of college and professional sports.
Scholars have said that sports incorporate a society's values. Indeed, Mr. Armstrong's description of his "ruthless" desire to win could apply to many of our beloved sports figures, and they'd be respected for it. In the U.S., sports are considered an individual, private-sector affair, guided predominantly by the demands of the market. We are unusual in that we do not have a government ministry for sport. Our professional leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association enjoy considerable deference from courts and Congress, which hesitate to get involved in their regulation. The desire to win, coupled with a laissez-faire approach, often reflect United States sports at their best and worst. It is that desire that contributed to the crisis in the American Olympic movement that ultimately resulted in the formation of the USADA.
Previously, the United States Olympic Committee, charged with developing athletes for international competition, had responsibility for testing and sanctioning competitors for doping violations. This type of self-regulation, fraught with conflicts, led to many American medals and seemingly unforgettable Olympic moments. It was also built on many a fraud.
USADA was created in 2000 as a private, nonprofit corporation with the strong support of Congress. Its mission is to investigate, test and sanction athletes in accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code, which must be followed by every sports federation, as well as every nation that wishes to participate in the Olympic movement. USADA is fully independent of the USOC, and it is not a government agency. However, it is primarily funded through government grants, and it enjoys Congress' endorsement as the "official" anti-doping agency of the United States. For this reason, the rules USADA enforces and actions that it takes have real significance — athletes who participate in Olympic movement sports must either abide by them or, like Mr. Armstrong, find themselves banned from the world of international sports.
An institution with this type of independence and authority does not exist in professional and college sports, where win-at-all-costs attitudes and self-regulation can lead to the type of corrupt decision-making that once tarnished the American Olympic program. As a result, Mr. Armstrong's confession to Ms. Winfrey made me wonder what would happen if there was an organization like USADA that could unequivocally present the public with the truth about many of our beloved sports figures and institutions, and then have the power to take action.
For instance, imagine if USADA had authority over professional and college sports. If it did, there would not have been a cloud of suspicion over this year's baseball Hall of Fame class. Instead, we would have long ago had real answers — and likely a far more productive debate about the players' place, or not, in the Hall — because, as we eventually did with Mr. Armstrong, we likely would have heard from the players themselves. Although Mr. Armstrong's description of his lack of remorse might leave one cold, his view that doping was "part of the job" in international cycling is critical to better understanding the sport, our enjoyment of it, and ultimately ourselves. Without the kind of firm and final judgment that USADA gave us on Mr. Armstrong, Hall of Fame candidates from baseball's steroid era have been incentivized to keep denying and living in the shadows, and the game is far worse for it.
Similarly, imagine an independent agency whose mission it was to investigate and sanction college athletic programs. In sharp contrast to the NCAA, whose member-run, half-hearted attempts to self-police long ago lost legitimacy, a new entity could be created as a public-private partnership charged with ensuring that rule violations in college sports are thoroughly investigated and even-handedly punished. It could also hold institutions accountable for failure to abide by gender equity laws, failing to properly educate student athletes and subverting the academic mission of the school. Schools that wish to participate in intercollegiate athletics would have to follow the rules — or face the fate that has befallen Mr. Armstrong.
More than anything, the Armstrong example shows us that it is possible to regulate sports in a way that ensures no institution or athlete is too big to fail, and that the benefit of tearing down the facade of even our most revered athletes is gaining important truths about athletic culture. Such truth is badly needed in college and professional sports, and the fact that we don't seek it says something about us. It's time for Congress to use its power, as it has before, to help create an independent entity that can bring greater credibility to American sports so that they more often reflect the best of our human intentions and impulses, and not the worst.
Dionne Koller is an associate professor of law and the director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore. Her email is email@example.com.