Gail Collins / The point of Lance Armstrong

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Right now you're probably asking yourself: What can the Lance Armstrong scandal teach us as a nation? It had better teach us something or we'll have wasted one heck of a lot of time talking about this guy. And the lesson should not involve the future of cycling. Now that Mr. Armstrong is disgraced, people, how many of you ever plan to think about the sport of cycling again? Can I see a show of hands? I thought so.

As the whole universe knows, Mr. Armstrong is a superfamous U.S. athlete who developed testicular cancer, went through arduous therapy and then returned to the racing circuit as the head of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, winning the Tour de France seven straight times.

And then the authorities stripped away his medals for serial doping. Which Mr. Armstrong denied, virtually on an hourly basis, with a vengeance that made "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" sound like a confession.

The denial stage ended Thursday in an Oprah interview. Now we can discuss whether Mr. Armstrong can be forgiven.

We can certainly grant him absolution as a human being, but he appears to be in the market for forgiveness as a celebrity. And, really, once you get past the now-demolished race record, there's not much point to Lance Armstrong, Famous Person.

He has no other talents. He isn't particularly lovable. He was once cited for using 330,000 gallons of water at his Texas home in a month when his neighbors were being asked to conserve by cutting back on their car-washing. He left his wife and got engaged to singer Sheryl Crow. He said he broke up with Ms. Crow because of her "biological clock." The New York Post had him dating an Olsen twin.

There's always a chance. Mr. Armstrong could demonstrate his remorse by dedicating the rest of his life to fighting rural poverty in a remote section of Africa, preferably one where residents are limited to a quart of water a day. His fans would come flocking back, although Mr. Armstrong would hardly notice because the critical part of the deal would be staying in Niger or Burkina Faso forever.

Meanwhile, his foundation could pick a new spokesperson from the ranks of U.S. cancer survivors who went back to work without violating the cardinal moral principle of their profession.

But we still need to wring a useful lesson out of all this. Let's consider the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. Between 1996 and 2004, our U.S. mail system invested an estimated $40 million in this venture, in return for which Mr. Armstrong and his teammates rode around with the Postal Service insignia on their shirts. This would be the same Postal Service that lost $16 billion last year, and I believe I speak for every stamp-buyer in the nation when I say: What?!

The Armstrong heyday was back in the era when the Postal Service, having been spun off into a quasi-private enterprise, was having delusions of corporate grandeur. The era when it lost $8.3 million in a failed attempt to start a retail operation in the Mall of America. Its leaders liked the idea that "they could rub shoulders with other CEOs who were sponsoring sports activities," said Ruth Goldway, the chairwoman of the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Ms. Goldway was never a big fan of the postal service cycle team, although she felt it was a better marketing tool than some of the other ideas put into play, like "buying free tickets for postal employees to go to football games." And, she said, she had some sympathy for Mr. Armstrong -- "until I saw how he treated Sheryl Crow."

There still are sponsorship deals floating all around the federal government. (The Army has one with the National Hot Rod Association.) Nobody seems to keep track of exactly how much they add up to. Maybe this one little area could be a staging ground for bipartisan accord. Republicans and Democrats could join together to ban the use of federal taxpayer dollars for sponsorship of sports events. Then they would be so pleased with their progress that they could move on and pass a genuine budget. The Lance Armstrong debacle would have a point!

Although, actually, Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota proposed banning the use of taxpayer money to sponsor NASCAR race teams in 2011, and she was voted down, 281-148.

We'll look for another moral. Maybe something about Sheryl Crow.

opinion_commentary

Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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