In April 2013 the US Justice Department joined a whistleblower action against Lance Armstrong in the District Court of Washington, D.C. The lawsuit alleges that by using performance enhancing drugs to climb to the pinnacle of cycling Armstrong violated his contract with the U.S. Postal Service – his title sponsor during six of his seven Tour de France victories. The government argued that the Postal Service would not have paid to sponsor Armstrong had it known that he was cheating to win races and that its reputation is now forever linked to an infamous doping scandal. They are seeking nearly $100 million in damages under the False Claims Act.  In return, Armstrong argues two-fold. Firstly — and somewhat disingenuously – that the government should have known about his steroid usage and that they hesitated from acting in self-interest. Secondly, Armstrong argues that the government’s claims are barred by the applicable six year statute of limitations. Regardless, on June 19th, the court took a small step towards vindicating the government’s claims by denying Armstrong’s requests to dismiss the suit.

For generations athletes have attempted to gain an extra competitive edge and organized sports have, with differing amounts of intensity, attempted to retain an even playing field. The past several decades have intensified this tug-of-war with the advent and popularization of increasingly sophisticated performance enhancing drugs. In response many league governing bodies have implemented increasingly harsh penalties for wrongdoers. Athletes typically face suspension and a corresponding loss of earning power while estranged from their profession. Additionally, athletes caught using performance enhancing drugs are less likely to be selected for marketing and endorsement opportunitiesHowever, this largely impacts athletes after they have already become successful and may not provide sufficiently ample incentive to prevent misconduct. For many young and cash-strapped aspiring professionals the short and long-term benefits still may outweigh the risk of detection. Additional fraud-related damages may shift the balance by making it more economically risky to engage in questionable off-field behavior. Although the direct impact of such litigation would seem to be, at most, confined to the largest superstars it may indirectly influence less successful hopefuls. For now, Armstrong’s legal battle marches on — with likely increasing attention and interest from similarly situated parties.

Reed Nixon

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