When a celebrity’s reputation tanks, what happens to his charity? “Nine times out of 10, the charity suffers when something bad happens to the famous person it’s associated with,” according to Ken Berger, head of Charity Navigator. “But Livestrong has been the exception to the rule.”
You may have seen someone wearing a yellow Livestrong bracelet. Livestrong originated as the Lance Armstrong Foundation in 1997. Armstrong, the cyclist who won the Tour de France seven times, began the charity after he was diagnosed with cancer. To date, it has served more than 2.5 million people and raised over $470 million for cancer research and cancer patient support services.
In 2004, David Walsh and Pierre Ballester stated in a book that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs. A year later, a French newspaper claimed that tests done on six of Armstrong’s urine samples, frozen in 1999, tested positive. Armstrong denied the allegations. A board found that the re-testing of those samples fell below scientific standards and acquitted him of the charges in 2006.
Accusations continued to surface. Both 60 Minutes and Sports Illustrated did stories with former cycling teammates who said Armstrong was “an instigator” in the use of EPO, a banned substance, among teammates. Others said they had witnessed Armstrong using banned drugs or had supplied him with these drugs.
Finally, in June of this year, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency filed formal charges against the cycling champion for using and promoting banned substances since 1998. Armstrong filed a suit against the USADA, but a judge threw it out. On August 24, Armstrong announced that he would not enter the arbitration process and the USADA immediately disqualified him and his team from every race since August 1, 1998, stripping him of his seven Tour de France titles.
Armstrong continues to deny the charges, claiming he has never tested positive. A 1,000-page USADA report includes 26 witnesses, 11 of whom are Armstrong’s former teammates. It claims to have “scientific data” that shows Armstrong manipulated his blood samples with techniques such as blood transfusions to avoid detection. Without a legal challenge to the allegations, the evidence appears compelling, and most people are concluding that Armstrong’s withdrawal from the battle indicates guilt.
Last week, Nike, Trek Bicycle and Anheuser-Busch cancelled their contracts with the fallen athlete. But Nike indicated it would continue to support the foundation. In fact, the charity has seen a 2 percent increase in donations this year. Armstrong did resign as chairman of the foundation in an effort to preserve its image.
Identification has powerful implications, as Ken Berger indicates. When people think about the charity, they think about the celebrity. If the celebrity has acquired a negative reputation, those negative thoughts are transferred to the charity. The charity may have an impeccable reputation, but transferred feelings often have no rational basis.
Freud coined the term transference to describe “an unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another.” This happens especially when some connection exists between the two persons, such as a similar relational role or some physical similarities.
Marketing uses transference frequently when contracting celebrities to advertise products. The consumer often transfers strong favorable feelings for a celebrity to the product. A professional athlete or pop singer does not need to have any expertise in a product line to persuade people to buy the product. He or she just needs to create positive feelings that will be associated with the product.
Transference differs from another form of identification: representation. A representative should exemplify the characteristics of someone or something else. A representative for a company speaks on behalf of the company, expressing its values and goals. What is true about the representative should be true about the company.
Jesus assigned representation to his followers. Praying the night before he went to the cross, he asked the Father, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21) The relationship his followers have with one another represents him, and the world is justified in making judgments based on observing these relationships.
We may not like the pressure of this responsibility. We may prefer to rely on our apologetics, on our ability to convince someone of truth, or simply on the words of the gospel. But Jesus said that the world will often determine the validity of our claim that the Son of God has visited earth, not on our arguments, but on the way we treat one another.
Forgive the person who hurt you and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Go to the person to resolve a conflict and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Sacrifice your time or money to help someone reeling from adversity and you show that God sent his Son into the world. Reach out to the person who keeps pushing people away and you show that God has sent his Son into the world.
Judging a charity by the character of a celebrity may be unreasonable, but judging the claims of the gospel by the relational conduct of its adherents is acceptable and expected.