News-Miner opinion: A fairytale year for Interior musher Brent Sass was underway until Tuesday evening. A year after knocking himself out of the Yukon Quest with a head injury that also sidelined him from the Iditarod, Mr. Sass was back with a helmet, eager dogs and a determination not to let his team down. He won the Gin Gin 200 on the Denali Highway and captured his first victory in the Yukon Quest. He ran strong in the early going of the Iditarod, coming into the Tanana checkpoint in fifth place. He was just two hours and 15 minutes behind then-leader Martin Buser.
Then he was thrown out of the race for using an iPod Touch.
Mr. Sass’ disqualification, race officials said, was because of the iPod Touch’s ability to function as a two-way communications device. If Wi-Fi were enabled on the device, he could have used it to connect to the Internet. With an Internet connection, he could have checked on the positions of mushers or contacted people. That’s why the race bans two-way communications devices under Rule 35. For breaking that rule, Mr. Sass was disqualified from the race.
There’s no question Mr. Sass broke the rule. The iPod Touch is a device capable of two-way communication, and such devices face a blanket ban. Mr. Sass acknowledged as much, calling it a “stupid mistake.” He didn’t question the judgment of race officials, accepted the sanction and, after a night’s rest, turned his team around and mushed back up the trail toward his kennel in Eureka.
But while Iditarod officials weren’t wrong in their application of the rule, it’s hard to say what they did was right — or at least fair. Rule 35 contains no mention of the penalty for having a two-way communications device, presumably leaving it up to race officials to assess the situation and levy punishment that fits the offense. Mr. Sass’ offense, at least insofar as all accounts have described it, was as benign as could possibly be. There has been no suggestion he used the device to communicate with others or check on the status or position of others in the race. According to his statements, he packed an iPod to listen to music, and he opted for the iPod Touch so he could watch movies as well.
What’s more, the device was discovered early in the race, before the device’s strategic abilities could have had opportunity to be abused to a meaningful degree. Relying as it does on a Wi-Fi signal, the communication abilities of the iPod Touch are restricted to Internet-connected communities with open networks — in other words, checkpoints. There had been three checkpoints by the time officials talked to Mr. Sass about the device. In any of those checkpoints, mushers could have talked to their handlers or others nearby about the state of the race, even — were such information known by those in the checkpoint — about the GPS positions of other mushers. In other words, talking to someone who is looking at an iPod Touch about the state of the race is not barred under the rules. A musher holding that device himself or herself, on the other hand, faces disqualification.
Iditarod officials were within their rights to disqualify Mr. Sass. They may have even specifically warned mushers disqualification would be the penalty for having such a device. But given the lack of evidence suggesting Mr. Sass used the device to communicate or gain an advantage, a time penalty would have been more appropriate than outright removal from the race. Furthermore, given how easy it would be for mushers to skirt the rule and still gain information about their competitors’ whereabouts while at checkpoints, race officials should clarify exactly what behavior they seek to eliminate and change their rules to do so — and define penalties. An iPod Touch and a satellite phone are treated identically under the rules as currently written.
The greatest shame in all of this, however, is that a musher and his team who were strong, honest competitors with hundreds of miles of trail ahead of them and a good chance at contention for an Iditarod win were disqualified for what appears to have been an inadvertent mistake. The statement of policy intent that precedes the Iditarod rules reads, in part, “The race should be won or lost by the musher and dogs on merit rather than technicalities.”
This year, at least one musher whose team had plenty of merit appears to have been felled by a technicality.