Early last month, I noticed a new follower on my Twitter account, @McCannSportsLaw. I did a double take when I saw the handle—@LanceArmstrong—but figured that either it was a fake account, or that the account of a certain international star/global persona non grata had been hacked. It turned out that neither was the case. Lance Armstrong and I began a direct-message Twitter correspondence.
This struck me as odd, even a bit surreal. I do not cover cycling and I am far from the leading authority on Armstrong's career, or its crumbling, but I have written extensively about his legal issues and criticized him for his evasiveness and dishonesty. Still, Armstrong conveyed that he respected my writing and fairness, and he was interested in my thoughts on, as he termed it, "the lawsuit minefield" he faces.
As a legal journalist, lawyer and law professor, I was deeply curious about how Armstrong intends to defend lawsuits that could cost him more than $100 million in damages. I also wanted to know how he envisions his future and his legacy. Unsure exactly what he wanted, I suggested we meet. To my surprise, he invited me to his home in Austin, and I flew there on Feb. 27.
It occurred to me that if Oprah Winfrey had, to great hoopla, landed the first post-fall Armstrong interview, this impromptu visit would constitute the second. It also occurred to me—and to others—that the whole thing could be an elaborate hoax, a reverse Catfish, so to speak. For all of our online exchanges, I hadn't actually spoken with Armstrong. From the voice that came through in his texts, however, I was pretty sure who it was. His messages exhibited a determination and edginess consistent with what I'd seen from Armstrong.
Finally there was this: Armstrong's reputation for using people. If I wasn't being Catfished, was I still being baited? Did he want my legal advice? Did he want me to spin his story? Or did he want—as my wife nervously suggested, citing some of the swipes I had taken at him—to get me down to his turf to mete out some Texas-size justice?
When I arrived at Armstrong's, I was met by solid iron gates separating his 7,800-square-foot villa from the rest of the world. Armstrong's housekeeper explained that he was showering after a morning run. I waited for a while on a comfortable couch, then Armstrong, dressed in shorts and a warmup jacket, walked in. He may be facing financial ruin. He may be the most disliked athlete in America, according to a recent Nielsen/E-Poll. But you wouldn't know it from his appearance. He looked fit and seemed relaxed and confident.
We spoke for three hours, casually and sometimes contentiously, off and on the record. (Sort of: He told me that he was O.K. with being paraphrased but didn't want to be quoted, but there were no limits on what I could ask.) In his interview with Winfrey he had appeared distant and had described both his lying and the consequences of his lying more mechanically than compassionately. On this day, Armstrong displayed a range of emotions, from conviction to sorrow.
Speaking of Oprah, Armstrong said that he almost gave the interview to Tom Brokaw instead, and that he had also weighed the possibility of producing a four- to five-minute video that would have been available on his official website, as well as on YouTube, Facebook and other sites. In the video, he told me, he would have looked into a camera, explained his actions and apologized for them. Ultimately he concluded that a conversation would be a more natural vehicle than a scripted speech, and the choice was between Winfrey and Brokaw. While Armstrong heaped praise on Brokaw, he said he did not regret choosing Winfrey. He also would not endorse the general perception of his performance on her show: that he delivered too little detail to benefit the sports community, yet the detail he did furnish repulsed the public.
Armstrong expressed contrition for suing people who had spoken honestly about him, and he resisted any suggestion that the blame lay with his lawyers or advisers. He did make the assertion that the companies with which he entered into lucrative endorsement contracts expected him to fight back against allegations. If he didn't, Armstrong suggested, they may have dropped him. Still, whether he was acting tactically or vindictively hardly matters when it comes to suing people he knew to be telling the truth.
On other topics, his answers were also enigmatic. Asked by Winfrey whether Betsy Andreu (future wife of Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu) was correct in her repeated assertions that he confided to a doctor at the Indiana University Medical Center in 1996 that he had used steroids and other prohibited substances, Armstrong declined to answer. When I followed up, he insisted he has no idea if he made such a statement 17 years ago, saying that if this conversation took place, it occurred while he was recovering from brain surgery. Nonetheless, for years he felt sufficiently confident in his memory to unequivocally deny Andreu's assertions.