Guilty until proven innocent

“Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat.”

I am not a Latin scholar, and I doubt most of you are either, but we all know that phrase. Translated, it forms the backbone of one of our most important judicial principles – the presumption of innocence. Let me give you the English version and see if you recognize it a little better:

“Innocent until proven guilty.” Seem familiar?

In our legal system, we place a burden of proof on the accusing party before we find a defendant guilty. Unfortunately for Lance Armstrong, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency seems to operate predominantly in the court of public opinion.

If you follow sports news, you probably already know that in June, the USADA charged Armstrong with doping and moved to have Armstrong stripped of all prizes he has won dating back to 1998, including seven Tour de France championships.

The USADA also immediately suspended the seven-time Tour de France winner from any cycling, track and field or running events organized or sanctioned by federations that follow the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Armstrong had begun preparing an appeal to the ban but later withdrew his appeal, an action many have seen as an admission of guilt.

Despite dropping the appeal, Armstrong has spoken out loudly against the ruling, calling it a “witch hunt,” a “vendetta” and claiming the USADA is out to “dredge up discredited” evidence, despite the fact that the Justice Department chose to drop its criminal doping investigation of Armstrong which was based on the same evidence.

He might have something there.

The first and most important problem with these charges is that Lance Armstrong still has yet to officially fail a drug test. He has been accused of doping by numerous other cyclists but has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He has never been proven guilty.

Does this mean he never used them? Absolutely not. But negative results suggest the USADA may be grasping at straws in an attempt to make an example of a well-known figure accused of breaking the rules. An appeals panel recently overturned NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspensions of four players in the Saints bounty scandal, and it’s reasonable to think that Goodell was not the only sports leader to rush to judgment.

At the very least, Armstrong’s negative tests make the consequences of his ban less palpable. If the USADA’s decision stands, each of Armstrong’s Tour de France titles would be awarded retroactively to the man who finished second that year. All seven of those titles, though, would be awarded to riders who have been linked to doping allegations in their careers.

Alex Zulle, the 1999 runner-up, was banned from the 1998 Tour and has admitted to using EPO, one of the performance enhancers Armstrong is accused of using. Ivan Basso, who finished second in 2005, served a two-year suspension because of doping allegations. And Jan Ullrich, who would take Armstrong’s titles from 2000, 2001, and 2003, was banned from the 2006 Tour and stripped of his 2005 third-place finish for doping.

Joseba Beloki and Andreas Kloden, the 2002 and 2004 runners-up, are the only retroactive champions to stand free of punishment for doping, but both of them were still accused at one point.

Although most USADA convictions have occurred relatively quickly after the alleged offense — à la Floyd Landis in 2006 — Armstrong’s blood samples dating as far back as 1986 have been relentlessly reanalyzed, using new detection techniques to try to sniff out the faintest trace of drugs.

If the USADA is going to re-test Armstrong’s samples with the hopes of stripping him of his titles, shouldn’t the samples of Zulle, Ullrich, Beloki, Kloden, and Basso be similarly re-tested? If the USADA strips a title from one supposed doper and hands it to a convicted doper, especially if the original champion was never officially convicted… well, what’s really the point? How can you reward someone who’s already been proven guilty at the expense of punishing someone who has not?

Perhaps the worst consequence, at least for sports fans, is that the ban reaches beyond cycling. The USADA’s decision has caused Armstrong to miss out on competing in this year’s Chicago Marathon and Ironman France triathlon, the latter of which could have qualified the Texan for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii later this year.

NBC reportedly altered its practice of tape-delaying the Hawaii triathlon because of the possible presence of the four-time AP Male Athlete of the Year. The network anticipated a large crowd of people who would want to see the event live, and who could blame them? How amazing would it have been to see perhaps the greatest athlete of all time compete in the arena of one of the most intense competitions known to man?

Unfortunately, thanks to the USADA’s refusal to presume Armstrong innocent until it proves him guilty, we’ll never know.

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