Protesters implore Nike to step away from Armstrong endorsement

A small group of former pro cyclists and cycling fans picketed outside Nike's corporate headquarters Tuesday to protest the sportswear giant's decision to continue supporting Lance Armstrong.

Nike has publicly supported Armstrong despite recently released US Anti-Doping Agency evidence that he engaged in a systematic program of banned substance use throughout his career, and that he encouraged his teammates to follow suit.

Former Armstrong teammate Paul Willerton, who started his pro career with Greg LeMond's Team Z before moving to Subaru Montgomery and eventually riding two world championships with Armstrong, organized the protest outside the Nike World Headquarters campus in Beaverton, Oregon, in hopes of persuading the company to drop its support for Armstrong and recognize the validity the USADA case against him.

"I'm asking Nike to acknowledge and honor the work of USADA," Willerton told Cyclingnews Tuesday. "These aren't allegations. There is a serious message here. There are a lot of serious messages here, and I don't think it's too much to ask of Nike, the company that gave Lance Armstrong such a powerful pedestal, to acknowledge all of that now."

Nike did not respond to Cyclingnews' requests for a comment about the protest Tuesday, but hours after USADA made public its reasoned decision in the Armstrong case on October 10, Nike re-released the statement it made when Armstrong announced he would not contest the USADA charges.

"We are saddened that Lance Armstrong may no longer be able to participate in certain competitions and his titles appear to be impacted," Nike said in its statement. "Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position. Nike plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a foundation that Lance created to serve cancer survivors."

Nike is scheduled to co-sponsor high-profile events celebrating Livestrong's 15th Anniversary in the upcoming weeks, and according to a report earlier this year in Outside Magazine, the sportswear company signed a five-year deal in 2010 that requires it to pay the Lance Armstrong Foundation a minimum of $7.5 million annually from profits generated by Livestrong merchandise sales.

But Willerton - who was present with LeMond at a fishing trip in Montana where the three-time tour de France winner claimed to have received a phone from Armstrong threatening him with a smear campaign if he didn't stop talking about the younger rider's relationship with Dr. Michelle Ferrari - said it's time for Nike to take responsibility and separate Armstrong the athlete from the cancer awareness campaigns named for him.

"To be fair to athletics we have to look at Lance the person and the athlete and deal with that, without letting everyone say the magic word and pull that cancer cloak over it," he said. "I feel that they are mutually exclusive, that just because you support one doesn't mean that you have to support the other. Nike could make a strong move right now by dumping Lance Armstrong, even if they still need to continue paying LAF."

That sentiment was echoed by fellow protester Jeff Mitchem, who carried a sign imploring Nike to "Just do the right thing: Sack Lance." Mitchem, who has promoted bicycle races in the area for decades, praised the good work of the cancer awareness campaigns named for Armstrong but said his behavior within the sport of cycling itself cannot be tolerated.

"I think that if Nike actually came around and did something like that, said, 'Sure lance, you're doing a great job for cancer, keep it up, but the stuff you did with the other part of your life, not so good. We can't support it.' I think that's a message that would ring loud and clear in support of clean sport," Mitchem said.

Todd Littlehales, a retired rider who raced professionally in the US from 1996 through 2003 with the Guiltless Gourmet, Navigators and Sierra Nevada cycling teams, stood on the picket line Tuesday to lend his voice to the call for Nike to take stand for clean sports and the future of cycling.

"Nike has a very powerful voice on a world level, and this is an opportunity to use that voice to say what they stand for," Littlehales said. "Do they stand for cheating and corruption and drugs in sport, as the mountain of evidence has come out to show has existed in cycling, or are they going to use their voice against that?"

But Nike's reasons for supporting Armstrong may run deeper than entangling contracts and loyalty to his cancer campaigns. The NY Daily News suggested in an article Tuesday that Nike is continuing to support Armstrong because the company may have played an active part in what USADA described as "the most sophisticated doping program in sports history."

The paper reported that Kathy LeMond testified under oath during a 2006 deposition in the SCA arbitration case that Julian Devries, a mechanic for Armstrong’s team, had told her and others that Nike and Thom Weisel - the San Francisco banker who sponsored and part-owned Armstrong’s team - had transferred $500,000 to a Swiss bank account that belonged to Verbruggen, apparently to cover up a 1999 positive drug test for corticosteroids, which Armstrong claimed he had used to treat saddle sores.

The intrigue gets ever deeper, but for protester Kerri Stewart the issue remained a simple case of right, wrong and responsibility. Stewart said the evidence USADA presented, and the fact that Armstrong accepted his sanctions by not contesting the charges, removed any ambiguity about the case, which she called "a done deal." Stewart, who described herself as a huge Nike fan, said she felt so strongly about the issue that she considered bringing along her children to the protest, but ultimately decided against it.

"We did have a thoughtful conversation with them and we want them to know, and I'd love to be able to go home and tell them Nike gets it now," she said. "I actually think they do get it, but they don't know what to do."

For Willerton, who says he has witnessed Armstrong's intimidation tactics firsthand, Nike has a responsibility to acknowledge the role it played in building up and enabling the Armstrong brand, a role that he believes continues as long as the company stands by him.

"What's giving Lance the confidence to still do that is the support of companies like Nike. I wonder if Lance really even cares about losing his Tour de France titles if these guys turn him into a Prefontaine-like figure," he said, referring to the legendary US Olympic distance runner from Oregon who died in an automobile crash.

Willerton used Nike's famous Armstrong commercial in which he defiantly deflected rumors about doping with the question - "What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?" - as a perfect example of how the company abetted Armstrong as he ran roughshod over the peloton and made life difficult for journalists and others who sought to expose the truth.

"That was a cocky statement that flew in the face of journalists who were doing good work like Paul Kimmage and David Walsh," Willerton said. "Lance has pounded on those guys, simply for exposing him. And I'm asking Nike to acknowledge all of that."

Willerton said it's an issue of simple fairness and proper perspective.

"It's not fair to give Lance that power and let him crush people publicly, and then we find out Lance is the one who didn't have the credibility," he said. "It's not fair to Kimmage or Walsh or Greg LeMond. It's not fair to a very brave group of people - Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu. Those are the people who should be in a Nike commercial."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.