Back in 1996, the U.S. Postal Service did something very corporate: It sponsored a professional sports team to enhance its visibility and image.
[PHOTOS: The 2012 Tour de France]
Since nobody thought of the Postal Service as a regular company, the early members of the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team had to explain that they weren't postmen delivering the mail by bike, but professional cyclists who simply got funding from the Postal Service, the way other teams were sponsored by Ford or Budweiser or American Express. The most prominent member of the team was a cyclist named Andy Hampsten. Lance Armstrong pedaled for another team, sponsored by Motorola.
Armstrong joined the USPS team in 1998. He won the famed Tour de France race each year from 1999 through 2005, when Discovery took over sponsorship of the team. For the Postal Service, the sponsorship had accomplished its mission: Aligning the USPS with a triumphant athlete who seemed to personify excellence.
That has all crumbled, of course, now that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has charged Armstrong and 11 teammates with a vast cheating scheme fueled by illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. Nobody thinks the USPS abetted the cheating, yet the Postal Service has been badly marred by its association with Armstrong and his fellow dopers.
"The US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen," the USADA charged in its scathing October report on the violations.
Now, that's just what the Postal Service needs—a doping scandal to add to its woes. The USPS—which is technically independent of the government, yet for practical purposes managed by Congress—is already so broke that it recently defaulted on $11 billion in payments that are legally owed to a retiree healthcare plan. The service has lost more than $17 billion over the last two years and would be in bankruptcy court if it were an ordinary company.
But it's not. Instead, the Postal Service is the biggest bastard stepchild of a derelict political system that refuses to take responsibility for what it has spawned. A series of reforms has made the USPS an independent agency that's supposed to fund itself through stamp sales and other forms of revenue. But Congress has retained just enough control over the Postal Service to micromanage the agency into a state of paralysis and obsolescence.
The Postal Service essentially needs Congressional approval to downsize, close underperforming offices, branch into new lines of business, and revamp its operations. It has detailed plans to do all of those things, but political meddling has so far stood in the way. The resistance primarily seems to be coming from House Republicans, who can't muster enough votes to pass a reform bill that would allow the USPS to stanch the bleeding and join the modern, digital economy.
Most Americans simply know that the Postal Service is a disaster, with decrepit buildings, surly service, and a dying business model that depends on the antiquated idea of humans delivering mail door-to-door six days a week. Now they'll associate the USPS with one of the worst scandals in the history of sports, as if the Postal Service somehow taints everything it touches.
The thorough dossier assembled by the USADA makes it clear that Armstrong was the mastermind of a doping regimen that dominated the team. Yet it repeatedly refers to the "US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team" as the primary perpetrator. Given the way scandalous ideas get ossified in our Glenn Beckian, vague-association media, this could easily morph into a widespread belief that the Postal Service uses taxpayer dollars to provide free drugs to all mail carriers. Down with the USPS!
Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour de France titles, and he could face perjury charges or be sued for prize money awarded to him based on the presumption of a clean record. But Armstrong also seems like a strong comeback contender. Many Americans still view him as an inspiring cancer survivor who has helped raise nearly $500 million for charity. None of his sponsors seems inclined to ask for their money back. Armstrong remains wealthy and charismatic in a nation eager to dole out second chances.
The Postal Service, by contrast, is a symbol of government ineptitude routinely derided by citizens who no longer trust institutions, especially if they're run out of Washington. It may get another lease on life if Congress can get its act together, but the Postal Service's reputation may never recover. Maybe, someday, Lance Armstrong could help sponsor a campaign to revive the fortunes of the agency that once backed him.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.