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Iditarod gag rule shameful: Race’s ban on disparaging comments by mushers wrongheaded

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News-Miner opinion: It pays to read the fine print. That’s what Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race participants are finding out this week after the discovery of a new rule for the distance mushing event. The rule, which hasn’t been publicly announced or commented on by race officials, bars mushers from making remarks deemed harmful to the race or its sponsors from the time they sign up until 45 days after crossing the finish line in Nome. The rule is a bad one — in seeking to muzzle mushers, the Iditarod is saying it doesn’t trust the people who are the face of the race. What’s more, the gag order undercuts fundamental principles that have made Alaska and the U.S. what they are.

The new rule is listed in this year’s rulebook, but appears to have gone largely unnoticed until a story from Anchorage television station KTUU earlier this week. It states that from signup until 45 days after the race ends, mushers “shall not make public statements or engage in any public conduct injurious to and in reckless disregard of the best interests of the Race. This includes public statements or acts which are disparaging to any of the sponsors of that year’s Race.” Penalties for infringement run the gamut from forfeiture of entry fee (and presumed inability to participate in the race, if the statements occur before the race start) to disqualification while on the trail, or even disqualification after the race is completed and a ban from participation in the race in the future. It’s a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of every musher from their signup until a month and a half after the race is over.

It’s easy to see why race officials were motivated to put the new rule in place. In recent years, extremely poor trail conditions have proved hazardous to mushers. Mushers are a group whose members tend to speak frankly, and several second-guessed decisions by the race’s trail committee to not reroute the race — particularly in 2014, when images of a snowless Farewell Burn and video of Jeff King’s harrowing descent into the Dalzell Gorge shocked race fans. More recently, former Iditarod musher Dan Seavey criticized plans for a gas pipeline along some of the trail route by race sponsor Donlin Gold. The race’s trail committee penned an opinion directly counter to Seavey’s two weeks later, indicating a firm focus on policing and responding to mushers’ speech.

But while the race’s financial motivation in the disparaging-speech ban is clear, the organizers’ decision to take such a step is unfortunate. For one thing, it goes against the plainspoken, authentic nature of the sport. Mushers don’t mince words. They often disagree, sometimes loudly. And they’re not shy to speak up when they feel something is wrong.

More often than not, that tendency to speak up about problems has been beneficial. In most cases, when mushers have criticized decisions by race officials, they have done so out of concern for the health and safety of their dogs, their fellow mushers and themselves. If mushers had been constrained from second-guessing the trail committee’s decision to follow the race’s usual course in 2014, would the committee have sent them down that near-snowless, dangerous stretch again in 2015 instead of wisely opting to move the race start to Fairbanks?

Already, the rule is having a chilling effect on mushers. One Iditarod musher contacted by the press for an opinion on the non-disparagement policy declined to comment out of fear that a reaction expressing displeasure could be seen as breaking the rule.

Unfortunately, this rule change will give more ammunition to groups with an anti-mushing agenda. These groups will now be able to claim, accurately, that mushers will be barred from speaking about conditions or circumstances that could endanger themselves and their dogs. The Iditarod, the Yukon Quest and other races have done far too much work to prove their emphasis on the welfare of the sport’s athletes to undermine their efforts in such a manner. 

The mushers can’t say it, but we can: This is a bad rule — one the Iditarod should never have adopted and one race organizers should repeal as soon as possible.

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