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Q&A: UNC grad and USADA head Travis Tygart talks Lance Armstrong case and more

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Travis T. Tygart at the Helsinki Commission Hearing in Washington D.C. on Friday, July 27, 2018. Photo courtesy of Adam Woullard.

Travis Tygart graduated from UNC in 1993 with a degree in philosophy. Now, he's the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which in 2012 helped expose cyclist Lance Armstrong in a massive doping scandal. In light of ESPN's recently released documentary, Lance, senior writer Ryan Wilcox caught up with Tygart to discuss his role in the Armstrong saga and more. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was your time at UNC like? In what ways do you think it prepared you for what you’re doing now?

It was a fantastic four years. I wish I could’ve stretched it out to be longer. Looking back on it, being at Chapel Hill was an amazing and wonderful opportunity.

Obviously, sport has always meant a ton to me. In fact, I wanted to go to Carolina to begin with for two reasons: one, my dad swam at Carolina for a couple of years, so that had a big influence on me. But I’ll never forget: I think I was in fifth grade in 1982, watching the game where Jordan, as a freshman, hit the shot. I’ll just never forget how it was the Carolina family, and they worked hard and Dean Smith had this process. It clued me in to something bigger than the day-to-day minutiae that we get dragged down with, and when I got to Carolina I saw that firsthand.

I eventually made my way over to the philosophy department, and I really gravitated toward studying concepts of justice, and freedom of individuality, and equality. Those concepts of what’s right and what’s wrong. That set a foundation where I decided to go to law school, along with my love of sport and what sport meant — it should be equal to all.

I ended up taking a job with a law firm to do sports law — not like an agent, although we did represent some athletes, but really from an entity standpoint. It was about two months before USADA got started, and so we became their outside counsel. And I just absolutely loved what it stood for, to keep sport healthy and safe and clean and fair. So it directly tied back into all the things I saw firsthand, but also studied in Chapel Hill.

I was offered the job to come in as the in-house lawyer here at USADA, and I think that was such a fortunate outcome. I may not have known it at the time, because USADA was still a startup, and we were struggling to get our feet under us and identify who we were. We had just started in October of 2000, so it was about two years after, but people still weren’t sure about this new organization — was it just a pee collector, or was there something bigger going on? Obviously, I always saw it as much bigger, in the sense that it’s a key organization in supporting and protecting athletes.

For those that don’t know, can you explain your role in the Lance Armstrong case?

We had a whistleblower, Floyd Landis, that contacted us in April of 2010. We began investigating it, and it seemed clear there were some criminal laws that had been violated. We then turned that evidence over to the federal government, who initiated a criminal investigation. We sort of put our investigation on hold in deference to what they were doing. In February of 2012, the federal government closed its case, and we said “OK, we have to do our job. And the evidence is overwhelming that sport rules, our rules, had been violated.” 

It was in fact the most compelling case of doping and fraud in sport that we had ever had, and the most powerful case — to this day — that we’ve ever had. So our obligation was to uphold the rules so that everyone has an equal opportunity. We initiated our case and moved forward, and ultimately issued our decision. 

We were disappointed, in a way, because not everyone was dirty in pro cycling at that time. A lot were. They kicked out a lot. But it’s false to say everyone was doing it, and we know there were some that weren’t doing it. Importantly, there were a whole host of victims that got kicked out of the sport because they were unwilling to do it — break the rules, become a fraud — in order to win.

The riders weren’t completely innocent by any stretch, and no one forced them or coerced them to do it. But we certainly appreciated that on the spectrum of culpability, they were at the low end. It was those that ran the sport — the team directors, the team owners, the coaches — those were the ones that knew about the system and allowed that dirty, corrupt culture to exist.

What was the backlash like to the case? I read that you received death threats, is that true?

For sure, it’s true, and two of those that did it were ultimately convicted and plead guilty to felony counts in Denver. Just nasty attacks and very specific, credible information on not only me but my family and, from time to time, our staff here. 

Look, I think when you pursue the truth, and there’s a whole host of people that don’t want the truth to be revealed, it’s not necessarily easy work. We either want the rules to be enforced or we don’t, and you can’t let certain powerful people, even if they’re global icons who maybe have done a lot of good work in other ways, not be held accountable to the rules. But I think it was refreshing to see the response that the world gave when the evidence was provided and everyone recognized, ‘This is the truth.’

Switching gears, how much UNC basketball did you watch this year?

It was brutal. But to see them at the end of the year keep playing hard, and almost beat Duke at home, was pretty amazing. 

The one downside of living in Colorado is you don’t get as much UNC information as you might want. When my wife and I first moved out here, it was August of 2000 and college football was starting up. I picked up the local paper and the headline was something like, “UNC looking good this year,” and in the third paragraph I see that they’re talking about the University of Northern Colorado. Like, what are we talking about here?

Last question. What sort of projects are you guys working on these days?

I always say our greatest accomplishment ought to be something in the future that we haven’t done yet, whether it’s pushing for global reform or running the program for the UFC. We have a virtual testing program, called Project Believe — I think The New York Times and USA Today and some others did stories about it. Next year’s going to be a huge year with the Olympics having been postponed. Just finding ways, day in and day out, to continue to support and fight for our athletes to ensure that their hard work and their sacrifice is ultimately rewarded, because they get an equal opportunity to compete and win on a level playing field.


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