Dragging Out Disputes in Adversarial Processes: Lance Armstrong vs. the USADA

Lance Armstrong is a hero to millions, many of whom couldn’t care less about cycling. What they care about is the human being on the bike: his courage, his strength, his battle with cancer, and his philanthropy. They care about this guy who got sick and didn’t let it stop him. Or they did until doping allegations got too loud. The USADA wants to strip Armstrong of all seven of his Tour de France titles and ban him from cycling for life. We could focus on any number of issues here, but to me, this speaks loudly of the desire on one party’s side to drag out adversarial processes. This is a problem we face all the time in conflict resolution.

In my experience, for the sort of conflicts that I get asked to help with it is very unusual for the two parties involved in a dispute to both want to resolve it quickly and with as little ado as possible. What is far more typical is that people take the term “adversarial” process to heart; one party wants to drag the other into a “process”, and they refuse to make concessions. Most of the time, the other party wants no part of it. Frequently they end up disputing more about the process and about many new issues that arise within that process so that by the end than they have more to fight about than they did at the beginning – the conflict has officially “spiraled out of control”.

This is where Lance Armstrong finds himself. He has had nearly 600 drug tests and has never once tested positive. He won his last Tour in 2005. Are there no current doping charges the USADA can investigate? Any failed drug tests they could look into? No and yet they want to drag this process out. It has lasted for years, and there is no end in sight. There is no way to say, “We’ve decided this issue. It’s done. Let’s move on and leave Lance Armstrong to his non-cycling work.” Instead, the USADA disputes everything; they continue to gather dubious evidence; they continue the process simply because there is a process that they can continue.

Instead of engaging, Armstrong quit. He writes, “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now.” He, too, mentions the Kafkaesque process that the USADA is following:

From the beginning, this investigation has not been about learning the truth or cleaning up cycling, but about punishing me at all costs. I am a retired cyclist, yet USADA has lodged charges over 17 years old despite its own 8-year limitation. As respected organizations such as UCI and USA Cycling have made clear, USADA lacks jurisdiction even to bring these charges.

At this point, the USADA gives no indication that they want to resolve the conflict. We’ve fallen too far down the rabbit hole for that. The level of complexity of the legal processes that Lance Armstrong has been involved with is incredible, and it keeps twisting and turning.

The adversarial judicial system was intended to give both sides the opportunity to present their best evidence; today, it is often used as a weapon as one party digs its heels in and refuses to let go. “Enough is enough.” In fact, I think Lance came to realize that this worst case scenario is better than continuing to participate in the never ending process.  In fact by letting USADA get their way he has forced the issue of whether of not the UCI and US Cycling will even recognize USADA’s authority to strip him of past titles.  This is a great example of when to use the WATNA (Worst Alternative to an Negotiated Agreement) concept to decide when “enough is enough”.

Some might find the reference to WATNA (Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) out of place here because the Armstrong case was in “litigation” and therefore no longer a “negotiation”.  Even litigation is a form of negotiation.  At the early stages it is a way to force discussion between the parties and once before a Judge or other decision maker the negotiation continues between the parties and the Judge.  This form of negotiation just involves giving up a great deal of control as compared with pre-litigation negotiation.

You might be interested in …