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Nike, Livestrong abandoning Lance Armstrong at wrong time

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

The 1,000-plus-page United States Anti-Doping Agency indictment of Lance Armstrong – so frighteningly thorough and supported in its argument that the cyclist was more the creation of performance-enhancing drugs than athletic wonder – simply couldn't be ignored.

That left only a silent Armstrong, trying to take some high road about not fighting witch-hunts and moving on with his life's work of raising money and awareness in the fight against cancer.

On Wednesday, it all collapsed on Armstrong. First, the seven-time Tour de France champion and iconic cancer survivor "stepped down" as chairman of Livestrong, his highly successful foundation.

Then to kick sand in Armstrong's face, Nike, his longtime sponsor, defender and, some allege, co-conspirator dropped him as an endorser.

"Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in any manner," the company said in a statement.

As Armstrong's sporting deal with the devil came due, real-life perspective and patience became casualty.

Look, Lance Armstrong cheated. There is little doubt about it. There hasn't been much doubt for years. Only those true believers who had been duped for so long could argue otherwise.

[Related: Lance Armstrong steps down as head of Livestrong]

But Armstrong was no threat to anyone anymore. Banned from competition, stripped of his titles, aging, he had plenty of time for foundation work. He can't win anything again. He can't beat anyone again. He's done as an athlete.

This should've been time to regroup and reload in a different way. This should've been time to stand stronger behind Armstrong because, from here on out, his purpose could be clear and true. This should've been a time for Armstrong to gain some maturity and grace and fight harder against the disease that tried to kill him.

The stakes remain way too big to let the fraudulent world of elite cycling destroy his work with Livestrong.

Only it did. At least for now.

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Lance Armstrong will remain on Livestrong's board, but is stripped of his top responsibilities. (Getty Images)

"This organization, its mission and its supporters are incredibly dear to my heart," Armstrong said in a statement obtained by the Associated Press that announced his decision to leave Livestrong. "Today, therefore, to spare the foundation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding my cycling career, I will conclude my chairmanship."

It's one thing to be "stripped" of cycling titles. It's another to lose the chance to continue to work on a charity built on your survival. It doesn't get more personal than that.

We're talking about fighting cancer. Is any human too evil to be a part of that? Third World dictators? Career criminals? Anyone?

Yes, Livestrong provided the moral cloak to brush off all the PED claims through the years. Yes, it provided Armstrong the power to bully his accusers. Yes, even after USADA dropped its weighty report – complete with sworn affidavits from 26 eyewitnesses and 11 teammates – Armstrong and his supporters could always point to his foundation.

[Watch: Tyler Hamilton on the drugs he saw Lance Armstrong use ]

And they had a point. He raised money. He raised awareness. He raised spirits and hope and the fighting spirit in chemo wards around the world. If Armstrong inspired a loved one to stick this out for another month or so, or encouraged someone to get a screening that resulted in an early diagnosis, or helped fund even a single breakthrough in research, do you really care what means he used to ride his bike fast up the Pyrenees?

Especially when so many of the other guys chasing him were doing the same thing – trying to cheat him like he was cheating them?

In the grand scheme, that seemed a reasonable trade.

Did he raise money under false pretenses, selling the idea that he was a survivor who became the champion of a corrupt sport when he was really just a survivor who returned to high-level cycling and probably would have won sometimes, just not all the time?

Sure. But it was still money given to fight cancer.

Suddenly, he's not good enough for Livestrong. Suddenly, he's a drain on the mission of the organization, too polarizing to lead. He'll remain on the board, according to the Dallas Morning News, but his chief responsibilities are gone.

Perhaps more insulting is Nike, the shoe and apparel multinational company that suddenly found religion when it came to Lance.

[Related: Nike tops Forbes' Fab 40 of world's most valuable sports brands]

Of course, it wasn't until Armstrong's name became mud and his ability to move merchandise was destroyed that Nike decided it couldn't ethically stand by the cyclist. As long as the money was rolling in, they were with him. One allegation reported by the New York Daily News states they paid $500,000 to cover up a 1999 positive sample. Nike "vehemently denies" the claim.

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Armstrong had maintained for years that he never doped or used performance-enhancing drugs. (Reuters)

Nike is sophisticated and very aware, especially scientifically, how sports work. So the idea that it could be naively duped into believing in Armstrong's innocence is ridiculous. The company either knew or would've overwhelmingly believed Lance was doping all these years. It didn't need a USADA report to open its eyes to be outraged by PED use.

Nike says it will continue to "support" Livestrong, but if it is really upset about Lance Armstrong, then let them take the money the company made off him over the years he was cheating – tens and tens of millions – and give it all to the fight against cancer.

[Martin Rogers: KC soccer stadium needs to drop Livestrong name]

Otherwise this is just public-relations spin, piling on a guy who the company had long propped up.

The Armstrong saga is a modern Shakespearean sporting drama, too good to be true at the start, too exciting to watch not to cheer on, too complicated ethically to simply condemn and, finally, now finishing in this crush of embarrassment and cut ties.

When Phil Knight is running from you, it's ugly.

So Armstrong must deal with the scorn and the statements and the reality that some think he's too toxic, too low to help even in the fight against cancer, the most evil and vicious scourge of the modern world.

It's a bad day for Lance. He made his bed. He has no one to blame but himself.

But that's sports. Cancer remains real life.

Nothing was won on Wednesday as more and more former allies turned on Lance Armstrong. But something was definitely lost.

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