To let Lance Armstrong ride away free — he of the hero worship, the good works and the arm-twisting — would have been easy. Travis Tygart ’93 knew it wouldn’t have been fair.
The final descent of the greatest fairy tale in sports did not begin at the top of Alpe d’Huez in late July but at the end of a phone call between Los Angeles and Colorado Springs in February 2012.
Three days before the Super Bowl, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. called Travis Tygart ’93 to inform him that Birotte’s office had ended its almost two-year investigation into the U.S. Postal Service cycling team and its leader, Lance Armstrong. In a three-sentence statement later released to the press, Birotte, attorney for the Central District of California, announced that he had decided not to bring charges of doping-related fraud in a case that also had involved investigators from the FBI, the FDA and the Postal Service.
Tygart, the chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, was stunned. He knew the evidence that the agency had collected on Armstrong and his team was strong, including testimony from former teammate and 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis. But since 2010, the agency had suspended its doping investigation while the government built a criminal case against the cyclist, while witnesses with knowledge of Armstrong’s aggressive web of deceit — which spanned his cycling career, included all seven of his Tour de France wins and was sustained by the long reach of his influence and his penchant for intimidation — came before a grand jury to testify.
And now Birotte, without explanation, had put the kickstand down on the government’s case. Tygart hung up the phone. Three minutes later, he picked it back up. He dialed USADA outside counsel Rich Young to let him know that the agency would restart its investigation immediately. Armstrong’s criminal case may have been over, but as the nongovernmental body tasked by Congress with monitoring and punishing doping offenses by U.S. athletes in Olympic sports, USADA still had work to do.
The task of defrocking an American hero did not have many takers — or believers. Time magazine, in a column praising the U.S. attorney’s decision to drop the case, wrote: “Imagine bringing a guy like Armstrong to trial: A heroic cancer survivor who devotes himself to the Livestrong Foundation, the charity he founded that underwrites cancer awareness, support and research. … No wonder Birotte folded.”
The NewYork Times predicted that any action USADA might take in the future would be merely “symbolic” now that Armstrong had retired from cycling.
But at USADA the following week, Tygart and his board of directors were feeling anything but symbolic, and they were not folding. They were invigorated. They discussed the way forward for an hour and a half, even while Armstrong, in an attempt to control the narrative, kicked back with a beer and told an Associated Press reporter that his doping troubles were “over. I’m moving on.”
“It was so clear,” Tygart recalled. “We all walked out of [the meeting] with the kind of resolve that, yeah, it’s going to be hard, yeah, it’s going to be tough. But if we are going to adhere to the oath we swore to protect clean athletes, we have no choice but to go forward on this. If not, as an anti-doping agency, we might as well close.”
By late May, Tygart and his investigators, including general counsel William Bock, had spoken with 26 witnesses — 11 of them former Postal Service teammates who admitted their guilt and told what they knew about performance-enhancing drugs under oath, often with relief and sometimes with tears. Armstrong was invited to cooperate as well but refused to join them. When he and five others, including the postal team director, a trainer and three team doctors, were charged by the agency in June, Armstrong threw one last Hail Mary. He sued Tygart and USADA, challenging their jurisdiction to punish him.
He lost the suit and then floored everyone when he forfeited the right to an arbitration hearing to contest the charges. Stripped not just of his seven titles but of the right to compete in any sport for the rest of his life, Armstrong had given up.
Lance Armstrong, give up?
“I don’t think Armstrong ever imagined that Travis Tygart would have the will that he had to see this to the end,” CBS News producer Michael Radutzky said earlier this year on 60 Minutes Overtime.
In October, USADA released its reasoned decision in the Postal Service case, producing more than 1,000 pages of supporting materials that showed Armstrong had been the ringleader of a doping conspiracy that was “professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs, to evade detection, to ensure its secrecy and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage through superior doping practices. A program organized by individuals who thought they were above the rules and who still play a major and active role in sport today.”
If it was hard to imagine before, now there could be no doubt: In Tygart, Lance Armstrong had finally met his match.
‘The stress associated with doping took all the youthful enthusiasm out of cycling.” — Former Arm-strong teammate Jonathan Vaughters in an affidavit to USADA
In January, 11 months after Birotte’s phone call, Tygart sat in a hotel lounge in Manhattan in a warm-up shirt and jeans, not a power suit and tie. Rich Young, who has known Tygart since Young hired him to join his sports law practice at Holme Roberts & Owen in 2000, described Tygart as “more like a guy I’ve been on sports teams with than some kind of firebrand.” He is quick to smile, quick to laugh and not afraid to do so at his own expense. It’s a useful trait for a man in his position, a man who carries the face of a rule-enforcer: angular, eagle-sharp. That countenance has made him an easy mark for disagreeable amateur satirists ever since the BALCO/Marion Jones ’97 era of performance-enhancing drug use brought him into the national spotlight.
In photos on the Web, Tygart has been reincarnated by detractors as a red devil and a marsupial (the leader of a “kangaroo court”), both images that make him laugh with a kind of “you’ve-got-to-hand-it-to-them” respect for the artists’ Photoshop skills.
In three dimensions, however, he fleshes out as the church-going husband and father of three who will fly into Colorado from a meeting in Berlin and head straight to his kid’s basketball game. He’s the guy you’d ask to speak at your kid’s school, the guy you’d invite over to watch the game.
And yes, he is the guy who brought down Lance Armstrong. That phrasing may not please Tygart. He is a card-carrying member of the No “I” in Team club, for one. And, despite the tenacious efforts of Armstrong to convince the world otherwise, Tygart didn’t just dream up the cyclist’s downfall over breakfast one day — the agency was obligated under world anti-doping agreements to pursue U.S. Postal Service team wrongdoings. Still, USADA’s resolve in that mission undeniably radiates from the top of the organizational chart, like clear and steady signals from a radio tower.
Or like Tygart’s cell phone that never stops buzzing on the table in front of him, as new narratives percolate their way into an already boiling pot of Lance storylines: In a few hours, that once unthinkable interview with Oprah would be announced. Clips would be released of Tygart’s interview with Scott Pelley, in which Tygart would reveal that Arm-strong’s camp tried and failed to make a sizable donation to USADA. And in a few days, the last of Armstrong’s apologists, from ESPN’s Rick Reilly to the weekend road cyclist who lives next door to you — almost everyone but Armstrong himself — would realize that there had been no witch hunt, no vendetta against the cyclist, as he had repeatedly insisted.
“It’s been a long day,” Tygart said. And a long, watershed-type year for USADA, the 13-year-old agency that Tygart joined as director of legal affairs in 2002, and then served as general counsel, before becoming CEO in 2007. Tygart has had a hand in every major doping scandal of the past decade. And now, this.
“[The Postal Service] case was a really important case for the future of sport, at all levels,” Tygart said. “If sport was going to turn a blind eye to rampant cheating at that level just because someone was popular or did a lot of good works for society, then hope is lost for the next generation of athletes.”
Tygart is a trim and athletic 41 years old, the same age as Armstrong. While Armstrong was pedaling around Austin and competing in triathlons at 16, Tygart was competing for his basketball and baseball teams in Jacksonville, Fla. At the Bolles School, he won a 2A state championship in 1989 at third base with good friend and future No. 1 draft pick Chipper Jones.
He was a sports hero at least once, hitting a grand slam under the lights against rival Bishop Kenny High before a huge crowd. His father, Tom Tygart ’62, who was a swimmer at Carolina, remembers that night “like it was yesterday.”
But Travis, who admits to D’s in chemistry and playing time that sometimes felt charitable, knew that he was neither a spectacular athlete nor a superb student. The byproduct of that awareness was a love for the ideals that felt unique to sport when he was young and how those ideals aligned so readily with his own approach to life: The way hard work could substitute for pedigree or natural ability, and the way fair play made that possible. The way the weak could become strong and the strong could become weak, through choices that define character.
Tygart doesn’t just revere those ideals today; he has made himself their protector.
“In the classroom, it was about pure intellect, and everyone there was by far more intelligent than I was,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. “But on the playing field, it was more about things you could control: your tenacity, your work ethic, your dedication to it.”
Whether those personality traits were hardwired into Tygart or picked up from observing his maternal grandfather, Salem Soud, is difficult to say. But certainly Tygart and Soud, a first-generation Lebanese-American whom Tygart admired for being a self-made businessman, were cut from the same cloth.
Soud, who died in 2001, became the breadwinner in his family at 19, cared for his pregnant, widowed mother and put two younger brothers through college (one became a dentist, the other, a judge) while never having the time to go to university himself.
“Your word is your bond, and you treat people like you want to be treated — those common-sense principles that I think are really important still today, I saw firsthand from him,” Tygart recalled. “I saw him work, and I saw that you can be successful by working hard. That really resonated with me.”
Something else Tygart shared with Soud: backbone, and plenty of it. “My dad was always a man of very strong conviction,” Tygart’s mother, Judi, said. “With him, nothing was gray. He was the type of person who, when he had a responsibility, he took it very seriously.” She paused a beat. “Very seriously.”
Travis did, too, always. In high school, administrators insisted that they edit the closing prayer Tygart planned to give as president of his senior class at graduation — Judi recalled they wanted Travis to remove a reference to Jesus — but Tygart told them he wouldn’t deliver words that did not reflect what he believed. So he stood aside and let another classmate have the honor.
At Carolina, he called out a roommate and well-liked fraternity brother who was eating from the Pi Kappa Alpha kitchen though not keeping up his bills. Tygart, the president of the house, caught some heat for the move, recalled Craig Camp ’93.
“Can’t you let that slide?” some PiKA brothers asked.
“Well, sure, I guess you could let that slide,” Tygart responded. “But what does that say to the rest of the people who are paying their dues?”
“His arrow has always been pointed north,” said Camp, who has known Tygart since they were 5. “He is black-and-white. He thinks through topics and issues to great length, and once he’s settled on what’s right, he’s unwavering.”
‘I went home to my Spanish apartment and had a breakdown. I called home, crying. I had pursued cycling as an escape from drugs, and here I was, having succumbed to the pressure.” — Former Armstrong teammate David Zabriskie, whose home life as a child had been torn apart by his addict father, on using PEDs for the first time
Last October, Tygart told sports radio host Dan Patrick that he had been one of Armstrong’s biggest fans and had told the cyclist as much several years ago.
“I also told him, ‘Don’t disappoint us,’ ” Tygart said.
“We won’t,” Armstrong responded.
So how did Tygart feel in April 2010 when he sat down to talk with Floyd Landis and clearly understood for the first time that Armstrong had indeed doped his way to stardom?
“It was absolutely depressing, frustrating,” he said, shaking his head. “You always wanted to hope the rumor wasn’t true. You’re conflicted. You know your job is [finding] the truth, and you have to pursue it. But you know a lot of people are going to be disappointed.”
Armstrong responded to USADA’s doping investigation with a campaign drawn straight from the denial playbook that Tygart said Marion Jones perfected eight years earlier. At its essence: Single out the messenger and attack, go after the process, and pressure everyone with a stake in the game to put pressure on USADA. Because more than half of the agency’s $14 million budget comes from federal grants via the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, that pressure also came from Reps. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., both of whom have questioned and called for investigations of USADA’s mission in the past, often using language identical to that disseminated by Armstrong’s PR operatives.
In the media, Armstrong painted Tygart as a zealot, driven by personal animosity to tear down the cyclist. Soon, much darker methods of coercion began to assemble. USADA had received death threats during the Jones investigation; last summer, after Armstrong was formally charged by USADA, Tygart and his family became the target of three such anonymous messages. One, as Tygart revealed on 60 Minutes, threatened to put a bullet in his skull.
Tygart still wouldn’t fold. He reported the threats to the FBI, which is investigating, and increased security at USADA’s offices and around his Colorado Springs home.
As the son of a one-time prosecutor and the nephew and grandnephew of retired Florida Circuit Court judges — remarkably, one on each side of his family — Tygart said he grew up hearing about threats from disgruntled defendants. (An uncle, Fred Tygart ’67, once joked that he thought Travis had gone into sports law to avoid such attacks.) Although Tygart took them seriously, he said intimidation tactics are never surprising — not even in sport — and if anything, they only embolden his drive on behalf of clean athletes.
“There’s a lot of money flowing into sport, as Carolina is seeing with football right now,” Tygart said. “And when you have that much money, and you don’t have regulations, people do whatever it takes to win. And that breeds an element that is not what sports is about. That’s what happened in this case. Unfortunately, it’s part of the job.
“I don’t like it, believe me,” he said of the threats. “But I don’t like the fact that Armstrong cheated for his whole career, either.”
Or, as Tygart’s wife, Nichole Strom Tygart ’94, said: “You just have to keep plugging on. Because if Travis wasn’t in his position, who else would fight for clean athletes?”
Still, with Armstrong fatigue setting in, plenty of people questioned over the past year why the federal government should fund an agency to regulate athletic behavior in the first place.
Tygart has a few good reasons why it should.
“If doping becomes acceptable at the top, then it’s only a matter of time before you and me and every other mom and dad out there will say, ‘At what age am I willing to inject my kid with steroids, or give them an amphetamine, or an EPO or a growth hormone?’ ” Tygart said. “Because if that’s what it takes to make an NFL team, that’s what it’s going to take to make the Carolina team, or the Alabama team. That’s what it’s going to take to make the high school team, and pretty soon that’s what it’s going to take to make the junior high team. So at what age are you willing to jeopardize your kid’s health and character?
“Youth sport in this country is off the charts. And there are a lot of parents out there who push their kids to get scholarships, fortune, fame, whether the kid wants it or not. At what point are we willing to accept as parents, as a society, that in order to reach your dreams in this country, you have to become an illegal drug user and a fraud?”
Tygart said that if we accept cheating as the basis for a level playing field, disband USADA and make it legal to dope, “it would change the entire nature of what sport is about. Sport would now become: Who’s got the best doctor? Who responds best to the latest drug? And that’s not sport. That’s a circus.”
‘The people who saw the crash feared the worst, but nobody from the team came to the hospital to be with me. I was all alone.That is when I realized that I was competing and taking risks for people who did not care about my health or value my well-being.” — Canadian cyclist and former Armstrong teammate Michael Barry, on why he decided to quit doping in 2006 following a horrific racing accident
For all the sad and troubling stories Tygart encounters in his job, the most rewarding days are those when he picks up a ringing phone and hears from an athlete thanking him for working on his or her behalf.
“I got a call from an athlete recently who said, ‘Look, what you guys have done validated the decision I made 10 years ago to leave the sport and not dope in order to be successful in cycling,’ ” Tygart said. “He couldn’t imagine how tough it would be for him, today, with all this coming out, to have to sit down with his kids [and tell them he had cheated]. There are a lot of people out there today who feel vindicated, who feel validated, that their decision to play by the rules and to play ethically was upheld.”
Equally gratifying are the moments Tygart sees a fallen doper, having admitted a mistake, build a life of honor from the ashes of deceit. Former sprinters Kelli White and Jones were each caught in the BALCO scandal, and they each were asked a week apart to cooperate with USADA in the case. White agreed, admitted PED use and got on with her life; Jones pulled out the fists.
“Kelli called me right after the announcement of Marion’s plea and her six-month jail sentence,” Tygart recalled. “She said, ‘Thank you. I’ve got an MBA. I don’t have a felony record. And I’m going to be able to vote for the rest of my life.’ It’s hard to get much better than that.”
Tygart said USADA would like nothing more than to reach a point one day when he and every other sports fan could sit down to watch an event “and take away that question or doubt if cheating exists. A few bad apples have caused that doubt, and it’s unfair to athletes who are doing it right.”
One day, research efforts that USADA helps fund may develop an easier, more comprehensive drug test, but staying ahead of cheaters is no easy task — and a big reason why doping persists despite testing. Athletes must participate in USADA’s demanding Whereabouts program, in which they must let the agency know where they are at all times of day and night using a smartphone app and make themselves available for random, out-of-competition testing.
And they will continue to rely on Tygart to protect the integrity of their sports. After the events of the past year, Rich Young said, athletes should have no reason to doubt what side Tygart is on.
“Looking back,” Young said, “and seeing where Armstrong was, where the case was, and where it all is now … it’s just amazing. It took a lot of guts on Travis’ part to get from there to here.”
CBS News chair Jeff Fager went a little farther; Tygart, he said, was sports’ real hero.
“We look for someone like Travis Tygart in the world,” Fager said in a 60 Minutes segment, “because he sheds light all by himself on something that is a serious problem. I really think that he’s an American hero. He’s the one who caused the fall of Lance Armstrong, all by himself. He never gave in.”
Tucked inside the necessary facts of USADA’s evidence are sentiments of longing and regret that take you by surprise, wistful and sometimes anguished words from riders — like Jonathan Vaughters, David Zabriskie and Michael Barry — about how much doping athletes lose along the way and just how much they would like to have back. It’s a revealing read. What rests among the rubble of those elegiac statements is not Lance Armstrong’s career but something far more fundamental, the memories that drive a love of sport: The moment you came downstairs to a new bike on Christmas morning and how you pedaled for the first time on your own. Or the time you were the fastest girl in the 50-yard dash at grade school field day — faster even than the boys.
Or that grand slam you slugged on a perfect night for baseball in Florida, lifting your friends to victory and making your dad proud.
Those are the feelings that drive us to the stadium to watch a game and to the garage to get our equipment on a Saturday afternoon. Tygart doesn’t want them trampled upon anymore. He is at home at USADA for many reasons. His belief in where people like Lance Armstrong began, and in what their cycling was once and should always be about, may be the most important among them.
“If you strip away the awards,” Tygart said, “what you have left is what kind of person you are. For some reason, we put more value on accomplishments than principles. I’d much rather be known as an honorable person who did the right thing than a guy who made millions of dollars but had no friends or no respect.”
In other words, as a wise grandfather once taught: The weak can become strong, and the strong can become weak, based solely on the choices they make.
Copyright 2013 UNC General Alumni Association
From the May/June 2013 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review