COMMENTARY

Livestrong issue still looms for Sporting KC officials

Updated: 2012-11-07T17:09:53Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

For now, the most important thing is the obvious thing. Sporting Kansas City is in a somewhat complicated but simply deep hole for Wednesday’s playoff game. The franchise has made such great strides the last two years, effectively joining the local mainstream sports scene, but falling out of the MLS postseason so quickly will bring another set of questions.

After that, we will get to the more important thing.

Sporting KC’s playoff game Wednesday at Livestrong Sporting Park will presumably bring the cancer-fighting charity for which the stadium is named its most significant shot of non-doping publicity since Lance Armstrong was effectively proven a fraud and a bully by the United States Anti-Doping Agency two weeks ago.

Which means Sporting has a fascinating issue to tackle: whether to keep the Livestrong name on the stadium. The owners themselves aren’t sure what will happen.

The franchise brain trust that’s effectively undefeated in making good decisions the last few years must weigh the fight against cancer against the potential harm of associating with a proven sports cheat.

Outwardly, co-majority owners Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig have remained mostly silent on this topic.

But privately, the men in charge are talking and thinking about this and know it will become one of their most pressing issues whenever their season ends.

Sporting’s owners were slow to see Armstrong’s ties to performance enhancers, but they did give themselves a legal safeguard to end the relationship with Livestrong. That means the decision is theirs alone, and they have enough information to drop the name if they choose.

Wherever you stand on this, the debate is much more complicated than most accept. Sporting’s leadership group is proud that, after seeking a corporate sponsor, it effectively donated the venue’s naming rights along with millions in revenue to charity. The arrangement is not quite as altruistic as it sounds — Sporting gets a tax break and some potential economic boosts by aligning with Livestrong — but it’s still a cool thing.

This is personal, too. Every member of the ownership group has been significantly touched by cancer — and one is living that impact today with the diagnosis of a close family member.

The key will be whether Sporting’s owners believe their own carefully cultivated brand will be harmed by continued association with Armstrong’s creation, and whether Livestrong can fulfill its mission of inspiring cancer patients while its own founder has been so shamed.

Armstrong has stepped down as Livestrong’s chairman but remains on its 15-member board. Sporting has no doubt noticed that other companies, most notably Nike, have distanced themselves from Armstrong while pledging continued support of the foundation.

But no matter what second-level business benefits Sporting expected from its relationship with Armstrong and Livestrong, the club is now entangled in the kind of moral dilemma that sports franchises don’t often deal with.

The easy thing would’ve been for Sporting to walk away from Livestrong already. But if nothing else, a willingness to wait this long indicates a willingness to go against making the PR-approved, masses-pleasing move of renaming the stadium.

By waiting until after the season — which could be as soon as Thursday, or perhaps not for another three weeks, after Livestrong enjoys exposure all the way through the MLS Cup championship — ownership creates a better environment for a thoughtful decision.

As long as Livestrong holds up its end of the bargain by continuing a mission that’s beyond reproach — even beyond Armstrong’s despicable record of lies and bullying in the cycling world — then abandoning the cause now would be cowardly and counterproductive.

That’s a significant if, and maybe Livestrong’s decision-makers need to present their case to Sporting’s.

But if Livestrong can continue to be a force of inspiration to millions who face a nasty and potentially deadly disease, Sporting can take an admirable stance here: that fighting cancer is more important than grandstanding on a sports star’s fall.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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