Where have you gone, Kenesaw?

By February 14, 2020 February 23rd, 2020 Cycling Club News

It has been suggested to me that I ought to write more practical articles and deviate from esoteric “philosophical” fluff pieces. Perhaps they go on too long, aren’t topical or directly relevant to club rides or other current goings on within our immediate cycling circle. Sure, I’ll change …

Maybe next week,

One of the beauties of putting together a weekly newsletter is that I get to do what I want – and write what I want. Usually it relates to cycling or our cycling community, but not always. To fill space I’ll share something I’ve read that I found of interest or something that’s on my mind. I try to tie it in to how we can better train or overcome certain obstacles in our fitness, and I did want to share my newfound enthusiasm for a study by Bent Ronnestadt that compared a protocol of 13 repetitions of 30 seconds maximum effort and 15 seconds rest to more traditional 5 min VO2 max intervals. He found, with elite cyclists coming off a long base phase, FTP increased by nearly 10%, while FTP with the five minute intervals actually declined. This is pretty exciting, but, to put it in context, this is a type of workout is not ideal for all types of racing disciplines, and perhaps is not ideally suited for long course triathlon or ultra distance cycling, or maybe even time trials. Honestly, though, I just don’t think I could have made that sound interesting no matter how hard I tried.

Instead, let’s make the mother of all random topic changes and talk about Kenesaw Mountain Landis. We should all know Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He’s a household name. I was thinking of him because I was irritated today. I’m a baseball fan and a Dodger fan. In 2017 the Dodgers had perhaps the best team in their history. They seemed almost charmed during the course of that season. They won in decisive fashion. They won in come-behind fashion – consistently. It didn’t matter, and after rolling through the playoffs they met the Astros in one of the most dramatic seven game series in baseball history. They also lost in dramatic fashion.

And the Astros cheated. They orchestrated an elaborate scheme of using technology to steal the signs being signaled to the pitcher to give their own batters advance warning of the pitch and location that they were about to face. This is baseball cheating at its most fundamental level, because baseball at its atomic level is about keeping the opposing players off balance through indecision and uncertainty. A batter has to recognize and react to a thrown pitch and determine its speed, the amount of break, its location and whether it will land within the strike zone – and he has to do this in a fraction of a second. Any advantage that will eliminate this split second of uncertainty most certainly will grant the batter a huge advantage.

The Astros players had the cheating down to a science. The technique was honed through a collaborative enterprise of multiple iterations culminating in the use of vibrating devices underneath their jerseys that would warn them of the impending pitch. The Astros ruined some baseball careers, denied the Yankees the chance to be in the World Series, denied the Dodgers the chance to win the first World Series since 1988, and denied Aaron Judge the MVP. It was an elaborate fraud that had implications in the hundred of millions of dollars.

The infuriating part is the phony apology public relations tour. They’re sorry, but not really, have offered a mea culpa, sort of, and will not fess up to the most egregious examples of their malfeasance unless confronted with direct and overwhelming evidence (They won’t admit the using the vibrators under their jerseys because they were referred to in the accusations as “buzzers.” In other words, it depends what your definition of “is” is.)

Their apologies are strategic, designed to generate minimal exposure and do as little as possible to make the whole episode go away.  It is a manipulative device and leaves the underlying culture that encouraged the cheating intact. In a way, they’re still cheating. It’s not unlike the defensive strategy of obfuscation and tactical denials that Lance Armstrong and his posse used to great effect. It’s an established protocol now. Deny, deny some more, attack the accuser, smear them publicly, and when caught, offer as minimal an acceptance of guilt as possible to limit future liability.

The world needs a Kenesaw again.

In 1919, the baseball World Series went through another scandal. Eight of the White Sox players were approached before the series by a gambling syndicate and offered money to throw the World Series. When the White Sox, who were heavily favored, lost, and the conspiracy was exposed through a grand jury investigation, the baseball commissioner, baseball’s first, rendered a decision that would ripple through baseball for eighty years. Kenesaw Mountain Landis permanently banned eight of the White Sox players from baseball, for life. This included Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the best players in baseball during that time.

It was harsh, draconian even. For Shoeless, who actually had a very good series and, it is speculated, wasn’t actually in on the fix, it was a tragedy. But it worked.  Gambling’s influence was completely eliminated from baseball for the next eighty years until Bart Giamatti banned Pete Rose for life for betting on games.

When people don’t trust the integrity of an institution, it dies.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis understood this, and was willing to mete out the severe punishment needed to preserve the belief in the integrity of an institution.

The temptation to cheat is great, and in a world where the belief in shame itself is shamed, cheating and the response to being caught are governed by a logical cost benefit analysis. Cheating is an option when the benefits outweigh the risks.

There was a Belgian female cyclocross racer a few years ago who was caught with an electric motor in her bike after a race. She immediately went into the same formula of denials, blaming her mechanics and manager and claiming she had no knowledge of any such motor. A vigorous defense, after all, would probably reduce her suspension and have her back racing in short order. In that moment, cycling needed a Kenesaw. You ban someone like that for life, you establish a precedent. You root out the culture of cheating, not just the cheating.