Livestrong CEO: 'We're Proud' Lance Armstrong Founded Organization

Oct 17, 2012
Originally published on October 17, 2012 4:09 pm

The CEO of the Lance Armstrong-founded cancer charity Livestrong tells NPR his organization remains proud that the cyclist and cancer survivor founded Livestrong in 1997 and wants him to remain involved in its work.

"He's our founder. He's been the inspiration for our work for so many years," Doug Ulman told All Things Considered host Melissa Block this afternoon.

Armstrong's decision to step down from his role as Livestrong's chairman, accounced one week after the United States Anti-Doping Agency released a damning report that placed him at the center of a sophisticated and brazen doping scheme during his cycling career, doesn't mean he can't still be a inspiration to other cancer survivors, Ulman said.

"The work that he started ... is incredibly meaningful to millions and millions of people," said Ulman. "The fact that he dealt with and experienced exactly what people each and every day in this country and around the world face when they are diagnosed with cancer is what's really important. ... That authentic experience is what drives our programs."

As for separating the sports scandal surrounding Armstrong and his work with Livestrong, Ulman said "our mission is not cycling ... our mission is not athletics." Livestrong's mission, he said, is to help remove the financial, psychological and social barriers that cancer patients face.

Ulman also told Melissa he has never spoken to Armstrong about the doping allegations.

According to Ulman, Armstrong will be front-and-center at events this weekend in Austin, Texas, where Livestrong will mark its 15th anniversary. Armstrong will be hosting a party and accompanying thousands of cyclists through the streets of the city on a fundraising ride.

As for talk that Armstrong may have used Livestrong over the years to polish his image, Ulman told Melissa that, "I take issue with that. ... I have this unique window into Lance's commitment to the cause. ... I see every day the value and the time and energy he puts forth. ... The impact he's had on millions of lives ... is so paramount."

As we also reported earlier, while Nike said today that it is dropping its sponsorship of Armstrong it is continuing to support Livestrong. Reuters is reporting that Anheuser Busch is also cutting ties with Armstrong, but not with Livestrong.

Much more from Melissa's conversation with Ulman will be on All Things Considered later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post.

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For more now on the Livestrong charity and its future, I spoke with the foundation's CEO, Doug Ulman. I asked him how the decision was made for Lance Armstrong to step down as chairman of Livestrong's board.

DOUG ULMAN: Lance called me on Monday afternoon and reiterated what he had talked about previously, which was, you know, is there anything I can do to ensure that the foundation's mission is front and center without distraction? And he raised the potential of him stepping down as chairman, asked me what I thought. And it led to a series of conversations, but this is his decision and one that he spent a lot of time thinking about.

BLOCK: He is still on the board though. Why?

ULMAN: He's our founder. I mean, he's been the inspiration for our work for so many years. And while he's taking a leave of absence from his role on the board, he will remain a member of the board.

BLOCK: Do you think there might be some benefit to not having him on the board anymore?

ULMAN: Quire frankly, as a cancer survivor and someone who came into contact with him years ago in the context of our own diagnoses he brings that perspective, and I think that perspective is critical to our mission of serving people battling this disease.

BLOCK: Mr. Ulman, when Nike decided to drop its sponsorship of Lance Armstrong, it cited what it called seemingly insurmountable evidence that he participated in doping and that he misled the company, it said, for more than a decade. Doesn't that evidence also taint the Livestrong brand, which is so entwined with Lance Armstrong and his image?

ULMAN: Well, again, I mean, Lance's cancer experience, that day of diagnosis in October 2nd, 1996 and the work that he started very shortly after is incredibly meaningful to millions and millions of people. And the fact that he dealt with and experienced exactly what people each and every day in this country and around the world face when they are diagnosed with cancer is what's really important. And that authentic experience is what drives our navigation programs, our direct services and our advocacy. And, you know, that's what we're going to continue to focus on.

BLOCK: How can you separate those two things, that authentic experience as a cancer survivor that you're talking about and these allegations supported by lots and lots of evidence and testimony that he doped for many, many years?

ULMAN: Yeah, I mean, you know, again, as an organization that is solely focused on serving the needs of people with cancer, it's pretty easy to separate, because for us, you know, our mission is not cycling. Our mission is not athletics. Our mission is helping remove the barriers for individuals when they're diagnosed whether they be financial, psychosocial, physical, practical. And we've got a team of a hundred dedicated professionals here who spend each and every day focused on making the world a better place for people with cancer. And, you know, ultimately that's our mission, and we owe it to our supporters to stay totally focused on it.

BLOCK: You said that it's very easy to separate those two things. I want to ask you about something from an article, a long article that was written about Livestrong earlier this year in Outside magazine by Bill Gifford, who spent time with you at the foundation. He wrote this: the foundation is a major reason why sponsors are attracted to Armstrong, but the reverse is also true. Without Lance, Livestrong would be just another cancer charity scrapping for funds. He says the two of you are like conjoined twins, each depending on the other for survival. Is there some truth to that?

ULMAN: There's definitely truth to the fact that, you know, the brand is attractive to corporate partners, program partners and other entities, and Lance's involvement in engaging those corporate partners has been critical to our success thus far. I mean, the fact that he was willing to approach Nike and other companies and ask them to get more involved with the foundation led to our ability to serve more people, so from that perspective, absolutely. But there are many companies and many partners out there who really truly believe in the work that we're doing and continue to do so.

BLOCK: There are also a lot of people who have said, look, Lance Armstrong and his attorneys have used Livestrong in a cynical way. They've used this charitable work as a way to buffer him from the scandal and from these doping charges to scrub his image. What would you say to that?

ULMAN: Yeah, I'd take issue with that. I've heard those arguments before. But, you know, I had this unique window into Lance's commitment to the cause from the day I got an email from him in 1997 after my own diagnosis to this day, from the day he started the foundation before he ever won a Tour de France race. I mean, I see every day the value and the time and the energy that he puts forth and so that doesn't hold water with me because the impact that he has had on millions and millions of people's lives is so, so paramount.

BLOCK: You said once that you had never asked Lance Armstrong about the doping charges. Is that still true?

ULMAN: Yeah. Absolutely. Never have.

BLOCK: I'm curious about that, because you're the CEO of a multimillion-dollar foundation. Isn't it part of your responsibility to be concerned about that, to ask those questions?

ULMAN: My number one responsibility is to fulfill the mission that we espouse, and that's serving the needs of people with cancer. And it's never been something that has been important enough from our mission standpoint to ask about or to talk about.

BLOCK: How concerned are you, Doug, about both individual and corporate support for Livestrong drying up?

ULMAN: Well, I will say that we are, I mean, continually humbled and grateful for the support of so many individuals. I mean, hundreds of thousands of individuals every year who give of their time and their resources to make these programs and this foundation possible. And the Livestrong brand, which was created from focus groups with cancer survivors many, many years ago, means a whole lot to a lot of people facing this disease and their families and loved ones. And that brand is, quite frankly, it is so much bigger than any one individual.

BLOCK: Doug Ulman, thanks very much.

ULMAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Doug Ulman is the CEO of Livestrong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.