Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Lance Armstrong and the Ethical State of America

Tim Quigley is an assistant professor of management in the College of Business and Economics who was an alternate for the U.S. Men’s Cycling Team for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In this interview, Quigley answers as both an elite cyclist and as a business researcher interested in CEO behavior and ethics. Quigley says Armstrong’s actions are no different than what we see in business and society every day. We are living in a culture with an ethics crisis where we are happy to turn a blind eye to cheating and bending the rules, as long as you are vilified when caught.

Are ethics of value in America?

Not as much as we like to think. In many schools, I’m sure if the semester has a snow day, the class on ethics gets bumped.  Part of the problem is that academia has been teaching the lessons of shareholder supremacy for 50 years and it has guided how business leaders operate. It’s the idea of Agency Theory, that managers are self interested with guile. If you don’t control them, they will cheat, lie and steal to rip the shareholders off.

That initial lesson has stuck in the American consciousness and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I’m told over and over that people cheat, at some point the message becomes “well, I guess I should cheat too” and studies bear this out. The more business and economics classes a student takes, the more comfortable they become with self interested behavior.

Tyler Hamilton [former Armstrong teammate and banned cyclist] talks about a type of grooming behavior in his book where the doctor calls your “professionalism into question” while slowly introducing vitamin shots and then drugs. If you want to be a professional, whether in business or sport, you have to do a little extra. There are similarities in business. How often does a sales manager ask for a sale, scheduled for next quarter, to be booked early so the team or company can meet its numbers?  Or the mortgage broker pushing a client to close a deal even though they knew the problems it would cause. 

Is doping really such a crime? If everyone cheats, is anyone?

I’ve heard that point before and it’s worth addressing. If everyone is doing it, who’s really hurt?  Let’s take football and say you can take anything from an approved list.  OK, that’s the NFL.  What about D1 college football?  That’s essentially the minor leagues for football.  Can they do drugs?  Some would say sure.  What about high school and I’ll stretch it to the extreme and say, what about 9-year olds playing pee-wee football?  Of course the answer is “no” at that point.  So where do you draw the line?

And what about the kid who competes at the high school level who doesn’t want to risk sterility or heart problems that can be associated with steroid use?  Regardless, I don’t want to live in a society that says you must cheat to be the best.  I’m not saying we can stop all cheating, but I’m not willing to just give up and hand society over to the cheaters.  It’s not the kind of world I want to live in. 

What do you think the punishment should be for cheating in the Armstrong case?

Armstrong is among the most impressive athletes I’ve ever seen and should be mentioned alongside Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as his game’s best. When he said he would win a race, I didn’t doubt it for a second. You need ego for that. So I believe this interview is all about self preservation.

Two years from now, with his confession behind him, I wouldn’t put it past him to win a Triathlon, the sport he excelled at as a teenager. But to cure America of its hypocrisy, he should not be allowed to compete ever again. To cure our ethical lapse, penalties should be firm and clear.

Armstrong cheated and yet it appears he will remain a millionaire.  Where’s the justice in that? White collar crime is treated the same way. You can be a CEO and unequivocally drive a company into the ground with mismanagement. You may be fired. Your days as a CEO may be over. You can be clearly responsible and, yet, still walk away a millionaire from severance deals and golden parachutes. But it is unlikely you will be in the line at the soup kitchen. The rest of us cannot say that.  The downside just isn’t a powerful enough deterrent.

Why is this case so important to our understanding of ethics in America?

The fact is, in America there's a set of rules, then a set of acceptable behaviors, and then the vilification – but only if you get caught - no matter how clear the evidence was from the start. 

Armstrong straddles the moneyed world of professional sports and business—two arenas with ego, drive and the cognitive wiring to get the job done—at any cost. It’s the same attitude that drove executives within the mortgage industry to offer subprime mortgages, or credit card companies to overbill on fees without clearly explaining them. 

Yes, Armstrong was a cyclist who cheated but this problem isn’t unique to cycling.  Armstrong’s cheating and behaviors around covering it up – the repeated denials around frequent hints of his guilt and destroying people who made accusations – is no different than what we see in business.  

When questioned about their behavior, leaders at Enron would scoff back and claim the reporters weren’t smart enough to understand what the firm was doing.  These same executives later denied doing anything wrong. 

Thomas Weisel, a banker behind IPOs for tech companies like Yahoo and major backer of Armstrong’s team, is said by Hamilton to have pushed the team to “get it done” no matter what.  I suspect his attitude would be the same in business as it is in cycling.  The evidence certainly suggests so.  In 2010 his investment firm was investigated for fraud for manipulating client accounts to maximize bonuses and eventually was fined $200,000 for failure to oversee their fixed income desk.  In 2005 his firm was fined $1.75 million for charging improper commissions related to IPOs handled by the firm.  In 2004 his firm was fined $12.5 million for pushing misleading research reports on stocks during the tech boom of the late 1990s. That’s the “win at all costs” mentality.  Today, Weisel is denying any knowledge of doping by Armstrong.  Another denial – it’s all the same.  

This isn’t a cycling problem.  This behavior exists in all sorts of human endeavors.  The question is can we find a way to stop it?  I’m not ready to give up trying.

Tim Quigley is an assistant professor in the Department of Management at Lehigh University who writes on the behavior and evolution of the corporate CEO. He spent his high school and college years competing as an elite track cyclist. (“I was pretty good. I was not Lance Armstrong, however,” says Quigley.)

His research is focused on managerial discretion, or how and when CEOs and other top executives impact organizational outcomes, the causes and outcomes of CEO succession, and how these have changed over the course of time.

Story by Jordan Reese

Posted on Friday, January 18, 2013

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