01/16/2013 01:11 EST | Updated 03/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Behind the Headlines: Should Armstrong's Charity Suffer For His Sins?


Behind the Headlines: The social causes in current events. In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

The headline that caught our attention: Lance Armstrong's confession

The trouble with Lance Armstrong's fall from grace is that he wasn't just a sports hero; he was a self-styled symbol of hope.

After damning accusations from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency last year that Armstrong had orchestrated a performance-enhancing drug ring for his teammates, the former cyclist was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Sponsors abandoned him and he resigned as chairman of Livestrong, all the while publicly denying the charges until allegation apparently turned to confession this week in a pre-taped interview with Oprah Winfrey, set to air Thursday.

At this point we don't know the extent of Armstrong's confession, but we do know it will be tough for the public to digest. Because Armstrong, "the fallen sports hero" is also Armstrong, "the former head of a multi-million-dollar charity and global awareness campaign." His career was an amalgam of sport, philanthropy and solidarity with cancer survivors.

Which is why we're all left wondering: does his doping confession negate his charitable work? Candidly, we're conflicted; in one scenario his charitable work cannot be diminished, and from another point of view, he abused the hope and loyalty of millions of donors and admirers.


Lance Armstrong Confesses

The first scenario has supporters put his moral transgressions aside to consider his good intentions first and foremost. Armstrong's Livestrong charity raised half a billion dollars to fight cancer since its creation in 1997. The signature yellow bracelets sold 80 million strong, uniting the movement at the wrists of its followers and raising awareness for testicular cancer in a way that, frankly, no one had the, ahem -- guts -- to do before. Armstrong's celebrity didn't just attract dollars, he raised vital health discussions. And he was an inspiration.

In this scenario, Armstrong cheated to win. Then he built something good and got caught at the mercy of his own reputation.

Denial became his only option. Every day his reputation remained untarnished brought in more support for Livestrong, leaving some feeling that Armstrong's reason for lying partially justified prolonging his confession.

Armstrong issued a statement in August 2012: "Enough is enough," and, though he didn't confess, announced that he'd no longer be fighting the criminal investigations.

In the 24-hours following this announcement, Livestrong received $78,000 in unsolicited donations. That seemed to prove that many refused to believe the mounting evidence against him, or perhaps wanted to forgive him or otherwise chose to support the cause regardless of the personal failings of its founder.

The second scenario is far less favourable: with his reputation tarnished, so too are his intentions. It's one thing to discredit your career, it's quite another to bring disgrace to a cause. And it's something else entirely to disgrace a cause built knowingly in your own false image. Armstrong is no victim under this mindset.

Donating handsomely to the American Cancer Society or visiting hospitals to sign T-shirts would have sufficed to support the fight against cancer. Instead he built a charity based on his own name, image, and personal story. Livestrong sold branded merchandise, and Armstrong made appearances at the White House.

Now Livestrong, the symbol, is invariably tied to the mistakes of Armstrong, the man. As founders of a charity, we know the level of responsibility that comes with accepting money that's been generously donated to a cause on good faith. It brings a heightened need for transparency and public trust for both a non-profit and its leaders.

Ultimately, what Armstrong symbolized isn't real. This is tragic in ways we didn't even fathom until we spoke with a close friend with a chronic illness, who felt that this false image put an unfair burden on those who are sick. .

Millions of Armstrong's fans, some cancer patients, once buttressed their own dreams with what they assumed to be his reality. It's easy to imagine the "If he can do it, so can I" mantra running through the minds of those who watched him battle testicular cancer and win seven Tour titles.

Instead of recognizing the daily struggles of many cancer patients, too weak to make it up the stairs, our friend believes that Armstrong brewed unrealistic and even dangerous expectations for sick people, and the related expectations within social structures of workplace, family and support networks. Just get out and run a marathon or two; you'll feel better.

If Armstrong's accomplishments seemed impossible, it's because they were. The answer to our initial question is surely some middle ground between condemnation and celebration, which is a more measured approach that we might apply to celebrity and misconduct, generally speaking. Some of the onus for Armstrong's fall lies on our cultural tendency to elevate celebrities and sports idols to too-good-to-be-true status, then crucify them in the court of public opinion at their every transgression.

We have to beware of our own responsibility when we honour false heroes.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit