An opinion piece from three-time Iditarod musher, Danny Seavey, March 7 2018
“Will the Iditarod family PLEASE stop fighting? I love the race but can’t stand to watch all the negative press. This week is supposed to be fun!” – Pretty much every Iditarod fan
With the revelations about drug testing boss Dr. Craig’s interactions with musher rep Wade Marrs, and subsequent phone calls to the press, the Iditarod is again in turmoil, which is really a continuation of the last turmoil. As with my last post about dog care, I’m not going to rehash the ‘who did whats.’ Instead I’ll address what it’ll take to make this stop.
I believe all the current issues started back in the 1990s when the HSUS sued the Iditarod. We lost several major sponsors and the race barely survived financially. Eventually the HSUS quit and left, but the effects lingered. The Iditarod family became terrified of animal rights accusations, or anything that made the race look bad. We developed an Us vs. Them mentality.
I can’t tell you how many things I’ve seen swept under the rug ‘for the good of the race.’ The Race Marshall ignored most minor rule infractions, and when there was a penalty, it was done so quietly that even the competitors didn’t know. The drug test team called everything ‘trace levels, probably from tainted meat.’ The Head Vet unofficially requested that certain mushers didn’t race anymore, but no one was banned or penalized. We put on a shiny face no matter what. Go back over the last 20 years and try to find a penalty or punishment for any musher for anything. Someone may remember something, but other races publish a list every year.
The current leadership came up through the ranks in an atmosphere where they could count on mushers to keep quiet about any issues, and they themselves did their best to cover for mushers. Just don’t say anything, and it will all go away. Sweep, Sweep, Sweep. I myself am party to this. The instinct to defend the race is so strong that even thinking about writing this makes me feel guilty, as if I were betraying my family. But now I realize all this secrecy is what’s causing the problems.
For a while this all worked. The race improved financially, and the competitors generally followed the spirit of the rules. But the pile under the rug was getting bigger. Far worse, and this is where I see the real breakdown, we didn’t learn how to deal with problems. There aren’t set penalties or procedures for how to handle rule infractions. There aren’t systems for drug testing, guidelines for what constitutes a positive, or procedure for reporting results. There aren’t methods for appealing decisions or settling disputes.
Then Brent Sass happened. The Race Marshall made a big deal about devices in the driver’s meeting two years in a row, repeating over and over that if found with a device, it would be instant DQ. So, when Brent Sass turned up with an iPod, the Race Marshall had no choice but to DQ him. Normally this would have been fine, but the internet was watching, the warning was verbal, not written, and it made no sense from the outside. How can you DQ a guy over such a minor offense, especially when other mushers had gotten away with much worse? It looked bad.
Similar circumstances then led to many minor issues – Hugh’s SOS, Dallas’ Vet Book, Travis’ Suspension, Paige’s Dropped Dog, off the top of my head – growing into major problems. By not being up front, transparent and communicating effectively, the race was repeatedly dragged thru the mud.
I want to be clear, I don’t think the race leadership was to blame for the above. They generally handled things well. It wasn’t the action, it was the public handling of what happened that has caused the bad press.
Even Dallas’ drug test was initially handled well. The Race Marshall and Head Vet reviewed the info, decided Dallas was highly unlikely to have administered the drug, and decided to let him finish and gave him his second-place check. Had there been a press release after the race that stated the above – maybe Dallas is given more strenuous testing and probation for a year, and dog lot security is increased – everyone could have moved on. Same goes for the second test (whoever it was). An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The whole past six months could have been avoided.
It’s really not that hard. We’re not trying to cure cancer or take guns from the NRA. There is no fundamental disagreement or problem that won’t go away. From my view, we need three things. Defined Rules and Penalties, Defined Goals, and Effective Communication In-and Out-side the Organization. In one word, Leadership.
Defined Rules and Penalties: The Iditarod has plenty of rules, but no set penalties. The Race Marshall decides which rules will be enforced and what the penalty will be. I really like Mark Nordman, and I think most musher’s feel the same, but he’s in an impossible situation. He was correct to DQ Brent, and was correct to ignore Dallas’ vet book, but it’s hard to explain why to the public without written penalties. Can you imagine NFL refs deciding which rules warrant penalties and what the penalty will be during each game? Fans want to kill refs even when it’s cut and dried. We’re asking for trouble. We must define set penalties for infractions after each rule. I realize a need for some interpretation on the spot, maybe give the Race Marshall the ability to override with a good explanation.
The drug testing rules must also be defined. There’s a long list of banned substances, but no corresponding list of acceptable levels, penalties, or procedures. One person decides on his own what constitutes a positive, and what to do about it. The NBA has a ‘Two Minute Report,’ analyzing the referees calls in the last two minutes of close games, explaining why they made the call, and if it was correct to help the public understand. Here’s yesterdays’ Iditarod statement:
“First of all it’s very unfortunate,” (Iditarod COO Chaz) St. George said, “the timing was definitely a factor in this conversation that Dr. Craig had. The message was probably informing about your dog tested positive, but that dog did not test positive, that dog tested well below positive, and I think that’s what Dr. Craig was trying to explain to him at the time it just was not the right time.”
I’m not feeling like I understand now.
Many sports have figured out testing procedures, acceptable limits, reporting requirements and appeal procedures. We should be able to find and copy one that works.
Side note: Rule 39 was changed last October, saying that mushers were strictly liable for all positive tests, and bore the cost and responsibility of proving their own innocence. So how would Wade’s situation be handled under the new rule? If we assume for a minute that he was musher 17, would he be liable? What’s the penalty?
Goals: Many issues, especially controversial rule changes, would go over better if we knew what we were attempting to do. For example, when addressing dog carrying rules, are we trying to turn back the clock and make racing more traditional? Or are we trying to penalize certain mushers? I’m not making accusations, I’m pointing out how bad it looks without defined goals. The MLB is instituting some controversial rule changes, a pitch clock, automatic walks, etc. that a lot of people disagree with. But, the goal is well known: they’re trying to speed up the game. Imagine how it would look if that goal wasn’t stated, and the commissioner of baseball was the brother of the guy who liked to pitch fast.
Further, where will the race will be in 10 years. Do you feel like there’s a plan or defined goals?
Healthy Communication: I’m including this without backup because I promised not to delve into nasty details. Suffice to say that the names you see in the paper, Stan Hooley, Chaz St. George – all of whom I support by the way – can’t do anything without Board of Directors approval. They’ve been threatened with their jobs if they don’t follow orders. I’ve seen numerous draft press releases that would have prevented some of the above problems that were then killed at the board level. By now it’s obvious they’ve been lying for months: there wasn’t a second test, well there was, but it wasn’t, Morrie goes straight to Wade, Dallas waits 11 months to see a copy of the drug test… At this point no one believes anything.
Many people feel the problems are more sinister, that certain people have ulterior motives. Why did Dr. Craig threaten Wade? What’s he hiding? Why hasn’t he been replaced already? Why won’t the Iditarod agree to the required financial audit? Why won’t Board President Andy Baker resign from a volunteer position after the sponsors, independent review board, and mushers asked him to? These are things we’ll likely never know the answers to, but honestly, I don’t think it matters.
Even if Dr. Craig were Wade’s best friend, he wouldn’t tell him he had a positive test minutes before the start. Even if Mother Teresa would be proud of everyone involved, it’s clear the Iditarod’s handling of these situations isn’t solving them. Count the emails in your inbox begging for money because the Iditarod will be broke tomorrow if you don’t donate. If it’s going to survive, the Iditarod must make some changes. I think most everyone will agree with me here.
Now the big question. Do you think meaningful change can take place with the current cast of characters?
We don’t have to assign fault or blame, but when something is broken, and getting worse instead of better, whoever is in charge gets replaced. It’s true in every walk of life. In this case the Board of Directors is ultimately responsible. Again, I’m not trying to blame anyone personally, and I’m not talking about firing people. The Board is a volunteer position.
‘If you remove the current Board, who are you going to replace them with?’ I would ask Visit Anchorage, the tourism board of directors to take over. They are not mushers, but they run several other major events, and they all know how to run big companies. Further, most of them run companies that are heavily invested in mushing tours. They need us to succeed. The Iditarod is a huge event for Alaska’s economy and tourism. That group would actually run the race from an operations, logistics, and fan standpoint. Especially since I plan to make the race a prize-money-free fundraiser, it makes sense to have it managed like a human marathon.
Then I’d have a second advisory group, made up of mushers. This group would be like the existing rules committee, and be responsible for writing rules, making trail decisions, etc. Conflict of interest wouldn’t be an issue, because this group would ultimately answer to the above group. I don’t have a background in organizational law, and this could use some improvement, but I think I’m on the right track.
Personally, I’d love to manage the Iditarod someday, it’s my dream job. I have to wait until my dad and brothers (and probably kids) are done racing. I therefore nominate Scott Jansen, provided he quits racing. He’s a high energy guy with a lot of ideas, knows how to market, and is well liked.
In the big picture, this is all good news. The problems you all have heard about over the past six months have been there for years, slowly festering. It was bound to blow up sooner or later, and it had to get worse before it could get better. This is all part of a healing process.
If I was King of the Iditarod, Morrie Craig would have been gone Sunday. The milquetoast response Tuesday said, ‘(ITC) will review Dr. Craig’s status in the coming days.’ Meanwhile two of the three urine samples have been collected. Dr. Craig cannot now collect, test, and analyze Wade Marrs’ drug samples. By extension, Dallas is cleared as well, for the same reason that when a cop is found to be dirty, all his arrests go out the window. The Iditarod must realize this. The press release I wished for above regarding Dallas should come out now. Failure to act is becoming endemic.
I know you’re all tired of this, I sure am, but we’re almost there. Let’s start with a new Board of Directors. Not because the current ones are evil, but because that’s the first step to any change. The current plan is to have the existing board members undergo training after the race on how to avoid conflicts of interest. Um, no. New Board.
I take no issue with any current staff member, but that would be up to the new board to figure out. Then defined rules and consequences. Open, honest communication, and some clear goals. 10 year plan.