This might sounds weird, but Lance Armstrong's doping scandal might end up being better for the U.S. Postal Service than the multi-year contract sponsoring his racing team ever could have been.
The Justice Department, on behalf of the Postal Service, has now sued Armstrong and his company, Tailwind Sports, hoping to recoup as much as $120 million. The contract governing the sponsorship deal stipulated that anybody using illegal narcotics, submitting false data or concealing data would be in violation of the contract. Since Armstrong has admitted to illegal doping, the government is now seeking to recover three times the $40 million the Postal Service spent to sponsor the team while he was on it, as the law allows.
The Postal Service sponsored Armstrong's team from 1998 to 2004, a period of time when Armstrong seemed to excel, but the Postal Service didn't. During that span, the USPS was gradually losing business to email, teleconferencing and other digital developments. The incremental slide became acute a few years later, which has now left the Postal Service losing a ghastly $16 billion per year. Congress, which must approve a turnaround plan, has chosen to dawdle instead.
The Postal Service was trying to act like a real company when it sponsored the U.S. cycling team, the way automakers sponsor auto racing teams or Nike sponsors athletes. The basic idea is to associate the company in the public's mind with a renowned and likeable champion. Obviously that backfired for the Postal Service, which found itself linked to a loser at the same time its own fortunes were sinking.
The government lawsuit might offer the Postal Service a bit of redemption. The agency has been getting lots of press on account of its on-and-off plan to end Saturday mail delivery, and other proposed changes that would redefine one of the basic functions of government. It's easy to mock the Postal Service, with its surly bureaucratic reputation and dorky uniforms, but anybody who's truly following this issue knows the real villain is a meddling and venal Congress. The Postal Service is mostly a political plaything that just happens to visit most people's mailbox every single day.
The problem with Congress is that the real creeps who enjoy tying the nation in knots usually manage to hide behind convoluted legislation blocking needed action. Or committee chairmen can simply do nothing, fomenting failure by simple neglect. In this way, the Postal Service faces an invisible enemy that perennially blocks its reform efforts but never shows its face.
In Lance Armstrong, the Postal Service has a tangible antagonist who has all but admitted he ripped off his sponsor. We might all deride the mail service, but stealing from it? That's low. Like purloining letters from a mailbox.
The government could end up settling with Armstrong, who has even bigger legal problems and would probably be keen to cut a deal. But it might want to milk the Armstrong suit for all the sympathy it can get, including a juicy trial pitting the steely, disgraced cyclist against the earnest letter carriers of America. It would get a hell of a lot more viewers than Congressional hearings on postal reform.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.