Why Going on Tony Kornheiser’s Show is Wrong for Lance Armstrong

Earlier today, a good friend of mine posted something to her Facebook page. Here’s what it said:

Tony Kornheiser ESPN Facebook Update

If you listen to the clip, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser — no stranger to outlandish, suspension-related commentary — basically tells his readers it is okay to run down bicyclists on the road. My beef isn’t with Kornheiser’s actual comment (although he’s wildly misguided on the rules of the road and legal culpability). My argument is with his employer, ESPN, which has yet to terminate its relationship with Korhneisher.

In the vernacular of the Twitterverse and, I suspect, many a PR executive within ESPN and elsewhere, what we have here is a shitstorm for the ESPN brand. ESPN, by not outright firing Kornheiser on the spot, has tacitly implied that it respects ratings over human life. Good brand message and association.

ESPN had the opportunity to do the right thing, but instead chose to take the time-honored route of standing by its man and having him issue a public apology. That’s all fine and good (albeit quickly becoming quite transparent) if Kornheiser pulled a Tiger Woods and the issue was personal (or if it was, oh, say a derogatory comment about a colleague). But Kornheiser’s commentary wasn’t innocuous. It was a trifecta of hate that has become all too common in today’s media: deliberate, made to incite and dangerous.

It is that trifecta that should have had ESPN’s lawyers scrambling immediately for the termination papers. Instead, ESPN’s PR team saw this as a ratings opportunity:

ESPN's Twitter response to Kornheiser commentary

And then there’s Lance.

Yes, that Lance. The one with a closet full of yellow shirts. The one who speaks for bikers everywhere. The one we mere mortals in clipless pedals look to for inspiration. In a misguided attempt to address the firestorm, Lance agreed to an interview with Kornheiser — on Kornheiser’s show — tomorrow:

Lance Armstrong's Twitter response to Kornheiser comments

I’m not sure what was going through Lance’s or his publicist’s mind. I’m smart enough to realize that even the best make bad choices sometimes, but this one was a PR no-brainer. Lance *should not* have agreed to this interview. He didn’t need to. Lance’s platform as a global celebrity raises him well above that afforded by Kornheiser. Here’s what Lance should have (and could have) done:

  • Issue a statement (on Twitter, of course): “On behalf of recreational cyclists everywhere, we do not accept Kornheiser’s apology. This issue is too important.”
  • Offer to lead a public, televised Critical Mass ride in Washington, DC — the city Kornheiser broadcasts from. And invite members of both parties and other celebrities to ride along. Kornheiser would not be invited to ride along.
  • Instead of acknowledging Kornheiser with an interview, use your much, much larger platform to take the issue well beyond the reach of Kornheiser and to the upper reaches of Oprah, Ellen or The Today Show. Kornheiser’s Q score is non-existant compared to the credibility you bring to this topic.

This is a personal issue for me, not because I am a cyclist who wants to feel safe on the road; not because I am a 20-year PR veteran who hates watching bad PR moves; but because my friend — the one who posted the original Facebook update — lost her leg after being hit by a car while riding. So ESPN, Lance, please rethink how you really want to and should handle Kornheiser’s irresponsible and deliberate actions.

14 Comments

  1. Tony was using sarcasm. Heard of it?

    This politically correct freak-out over absolutely nothing makes Lance Armstrong and other uptight cyclists look like utter fools.

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  2. First, thanks for reading the post. I’ll assume you missed the last paragraph or your father never taught you how to ride a bike (assuming based on your comments…that’s sarcasm).

    This isn’t, however, a question of joking or sarcasm. I’m by no means someone who is politically correct, either (actually, my humor leans way, way over to the side of political incorrectness). Kornheiser’s comments weren’t joking, nor were they sarcasm. They were loaded with hate and, quite frankly, a clear call to action for his listeners.

    So not only is this a PR nightmare for ESPN (of its own doing), but it also puts them into potentially legal culpability. The root of Kornheiser’s irresponsibility lies in the fact that there are people in this country (too many it seems) who take these media figures’ statements as gospel and divine directive…and act on them. I’m glad you viewed it as sarcasm; there are too many who don’t have that sophistication. That is why ESPN’s legal department should be worried stiff right now. Kornheiser and ESPN are now potentially liable for any car-bike accident moving forward since Kornheiser made the statement.

    This is a bigger deal than a radio host going after ratings; he crossed a yellow line and put himself and his employer into legal and moral jeopardy.

    * Please note I am not defending those cyclists who do not obey agreed-upon, common sense rules or who believe their rights as a cyclist trump those of a four-wheeled motorists.

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  3. I agree with you. This is not something that you say as a joke.
    The county is encouraging everyone to try alternatives to driving cars everywhere. I live in the country where there is no problem with traffic and we still get people throwing things out windows at us and yelling when they go by.Even the occasional wheel jerk in our direction. (Very funny)
    My son is a cyclist and lives in Las Vegas. He has been hit by people’s mirrors on their trucks. Run off the road so many times because someone just didn’t care to give him the same respect as car. Never mind that they didn’t give him any respect as a fellow human being.
    ESPN should be ashamed at not handling this more forcefully.

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  4. I think this is exactly the sort of thing that Lance should be doing. His profile will allow this issue to become an issue that rises above the noise. I think the man has the skills to win in an intellectual discussion — hell, the jackass radio host has already started to capitulate.

    Putting this tool under public scrutiny and subjecting him to the ire of the cycling community is a good thing.

    Go Lance!

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  5. Agree with everything Tony said. Had the extreme pleasure of seeing one take a faceplant while raising his hand to flip me the bird and knocking himself sideways. Have had numerous ones clip me while running (all the way to the side of a trail) because they are going too fast to move over a foot or so. They can all get bent.

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  6. And Bikers Suck exemplifies exactly why Kornheiser’s comments were so dangerous. That said, I agree with him on the running part.

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  7. Really Mike? Picking up on dripping sarcasm must not be a strong suit. Mr. Tony’s and my comments were more hyperbole than anything else. But I did take extreme pleasure in seeing the jackass try to flip me the bird and hitting his handlebars after he clipped me and I told him how awesome he was since he was too busy to apologize.

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  8. Dude, if he clipped me I’d have taken pleasure as well (extreme pleasure). Can’t say I’d have had a different “awesome” comment either 😉 I stand by my thoughts on Kornheiser’s being deliberate and dangerous. I’d back you if someone hit you while running.

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  9. As an avid listener of his show, all of his diatribes and rants are taken with a scoop of salt. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I find him hilarious and I disagree with pretty much his entire worldview. I think Lance Armstrong comes off looking petty in this one, which stinks, because he is the exception to bikers sucking. And your idea of having a mass ride into DC would make my head explode. It’s already bad enough seeing a pack of 30 or 40 clogging up an entire lane of traffic on heavily congested roads during rush hour (that’s normal for around here).

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  10. You couldn’t be any more wrong!
    I just listened to the interview (the one in which Tony K admits his daughter rides to work) and it was the most high profile discussion of bicycle safety and advocacy I’ve ever heard. The rational, thoughtful discussion brought up ideas about bikes that are usually buried on bike forums and blogs. And Lance may have just taken a step towards becoming the biggest (and only mainstream) voice for bike advocacy/safety.

    Rethink you’re rant ’cause you’re way off base. These are the kinds of discussions we need drivers to hear. And Lance may be the only person who they’ll listen to.

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  11. Mark, Mike and Bikers Suck are prime examples of why the local district attorney should be looking into bringing TK and ESPN up on charges for a hate crime. Let them think about it in jail.

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