Of all the things Tyler Hamilton told "60 Minutes," one passage in particular called to me with special clarity. He said, "Well, there's a lot of other cheats and liars out there, too, who've gotten away with it. It's not just Lance, you know? I mean, with a little luck, I'd still be out there today being a cheat and liar."
Over the years, I have been asked far too many times to count whether I think Lance Armstrong doped to win the Tour de France.
My answer consistently has been, one, Armstrong insists he has done nothing wrong and is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence and, two, all things in the fullness of time.
Meaning: let's see what time, and the justice system, bring. If anything.
On the occasion of Hamilton's appearance on "60 Minutes," during which he said he was repeating what he told the federal grand jury hearing the Armstrong matter, it is also worth emphasizing that only the United States government, in its pursuit of what it deems justice, has the means to get the truth out of people who otherwise might well be out there being cheats and liars.
In elegant simplicity, that also may explain as much as anything why the government cares about Armstrong.
Has Armstrong done incredible good for cancer patients and their families? Yes.
Is that good premised on his heroism? Yes.
Does that heroism rest on his seven victories at the Tour de France? Yes.
Isn't that heroism predicated on him winning fair and square?
If that's the core question, there's this:
The government cares a great deal indeed about the truth. It is the bedrock of the entire justice system.
Hamilton ended up testifying before the grand jury in Los Angeles only after being subpoenaed -- that is, he had not gone voluntarily. The "60 Minutes" thing -- that was a choice, with which the Armstrong camp found fault.
Watching the screen, I thought of the day in 2005 I sat in Hamilton's living room in Colorado. He and his then-wife, Haven, said they had no idea why the authorities were insisting he had been caught blood doping in September 2004 in Spain, just a couple weeks after he had won a gold medal in the cycling time trial in the Athens Summer Games; legal papers filed in his defense were suggesting the far-out possibility of a "vanishing twin."
It's entirely one thing to sit in your living room and say anything you want to a sportswriter. What's the worst thing that happens? He or she prints it. So what? Stuff gets printed every day. The next day, new stuff gets printed.
When you lie to a federal grand jury, and they catch you at it, you risk going to prison. Ask Marion Jones.
Her case, the Barry Bonds trial, the Roger Clemens case and now this Armstrong inquiry underscore a critical point: Sports officials do not have the power to compel the truth. Only the public authorities do, with subpoenas and matchless financial resource and of course the threat of prison or other consequence.
It's intriguing now to watch Armstrong maneuver. Consider the Twitter post he issued last Thursday, as word broke of Hamilton's upcoming "60 Minutes" appearance: "20+ year career. 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case."
A bold -- as usual -- public-relations effort.
As the World Anti-Doping Agency's David Howman, emphasizing that he was speaking generally and not about Armstrong or anyone in particular, said Monday, "There's a certain fragility to the testing system, and a sophisticated doper can beat it."
If this ever gets to court, that point would become apparent.
For instance, Hamilton told "60 Minutes" Armstrong used the blood-booster EPO in 1999.
EPO was by then banned. But a test for it wasn't finalized until just before the Sydney Olympics, which took place in September, 2000.
So saying you might have passed x number of tests when y number perhaps didn't include a test for the most relevant illicit substance in recent years in cycling proves -- what?
Beyond which, Armstrong's tests from the 1999 Tour de France itself have been the subject of considerable controversy. The French newspapers have written about them at length. In 2006, when I was at the LA Times, so did I.
In coming forward, Hamilton moved quickly to give up the gold medal he won in Athens.
Moreover, Hamilton has written a letter to his friends and family that says he was a serial doper. You can read it here. In it, he says that his testimony before the grand jury went on for six hours and that telling the panel what he knew felt "like the Hoover dam breaking."
He says in that letter, "I opened up; I told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I felt a sense of relief I'd never felt before -- all the secrets, all the weight I'd been carrying around for years suddenly lifted. I saw that, for me personally, this was the way forward."
Another former U.S. Postal Service rider, George Hincapie, reportedly told the grand jury that he and Armstrong supplied each other with EPO and discussed having used another banned substance, testosterone, to get ready for races.
To emphasize: Armstrong has denied any wrongdoing.
Just to think this through:
Would the federal government go to the time, trouble and expense to bring a case against Armstrong and allege merely doping? Does that make sense?
What did it do in the case against Jones? The charges were doping -- and involvement in a bad-check scheme.
Bonds? The charges were perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to the grand jury during the government's BALCO investigation -- not whether he had taken steroids per se but whether he had lied about using them.
Common sense says the government would want to build a case against Armstrong in which doping, if alleged, is but part of a wider action. How wide? It's mere speculation because grand juries operate in secret: Drug trafficking? Distribution? Conspiracy? Fraud, money laundering or other financial impropriety?
"My Mom and Dad always told me that the truth would set me free," Hamilton wrote in that letter to friends and family. "I never knew how right they were."