Clean Is a Dirty Word

Today’s daily news from the fine people at casually refers to classics contender Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) as a “clean rider.” This little bit of editorial speculation – slipping “clean” into references to riders and teams – is becoming more and more commonplace in the cycling media, though usually it’s Nuyens' French teammate David Moncoutie who wears that mantle like a crown of thorns. And while looking closely at this use of “clean” is a bit of a nerdy language-geek exercise in semantics, it’s a genuinely dangerous trend for the sport.

Label anything with the word “clean” in nearly any context, and only one alternative springs to mind – dirty. So when we start going out of our way to label certain riders or teams as “clean” in purportedly objective reporting, what are we implying about the riders and teams that we don’t explicitly label as such? That they’re not clean, and hence, they’re dirty. And that’s not quite fair.

Floyd Landis, facing a fair number of clean or dirty problems himself, hinted at the same issue during a January interview with Neal Rogers, taking aim at vocally “clean” teams like High Road and Slipstream. Says Landis:

“From my point of view, the problem that is taking cycling backwards and not forwards is that it’s becoming polarized. You have teams like Team High Horse, or whatever they’re called these days, and Jonathan Vaughters’ team, and they are saying we don’t care about winning, we just want to be clean and so it’s okay with us to get whatever place we get because we’re not doping. You know what? That’s one of the most offensive things you could ever say. That immediately accuses everyone who finishes ahead you of doping. That’s hypocrisy. That’s asinine. They have to stop saying that. It’s all fine and good that they are against doping, but for them to say we’re not interested in winning, we’re just interested in being clean is an accusation of anyone that is better than them.”
I don’t know that either of those teams ever said they don’t care about winning, but bonus points to Landis for the High Road/High Horse crack – well played. I’m also not sure it “automatically accuses everyone who finishes ahead of you of doping,” but talking about your performance and flying the clean flag in proximity can certainly imply that, whether you mean it to or not. You can talk about your performance, take a breather, make some small talk, and then talk about being clean and still remain on safe ground, but mixing the two is a bit like making a bleach and ammonia cocktail – things get pretty noxious pretty quickly.

The other big problem with media types making the “clean” call in their reports is much simpler than analyzing the affects of included or omitted adjectives on people’s perceptions . Put quite simply, how the hell do they know? Nick Nuyens may well be as pure as a snowcone made from frosty angel tears and rainbows. I’d like to believe he is – he’s well spoken, fairly humble, and provides a viable Boonen/Bettini/Ballan alternative for the classics. But while he, his DS, teammates, manager, girlfriend, and/or mother may all declare that he’s clean, loudly and often, to anyone who will listen, saying it just doesn’t make it so. Just ask the UCI or WADA how hard it is to vouch for clean – unfortunately, even a negative test doesn’t do it. So basically, if a reporter is willing to declare in his column that a given rider is clean, he’s probably trusting his sources a bit too much, no matter who they are. And that can really bite you in the arse.

People who get involved in spittle-whet rants about doping and cycling often make the mistake of confusing the rules of sport with the laws and rights of the criminal justice system. I certainly can’t recommend that mind-bending logic to anyone, but the cycling media would be well served in keeping the “innocent until proven guilty” adage in mind. Namely, that innocence is the default assumption in society. From there, we could just take a hint from any mainstream newspaper about how to treat the innocent. On those inky, crinkly pages, if a subject hasn’t done anything wrong, isn’t suspected of anything, and isn’t under investigation, etc., it simply goes unsaid. Nobody ever reports that, “innocent Girl Scout Debbie MacGruder didn’t poison any of her cookies.” If they did, it would kind of make you wonder about those Thin Mints and Samoas that shifty-eyed little huckster next door sold you, wouldn’t it?

So let’s see the cycling media set a new precedent for itself, and stop using the “clean rider” and “clean team” label. Let’s just talk about the rider or the team, and let the readers or viewers assume that the rider or team is clean unless we know and can tell them otherwise, or let them draw their own assumptions from the facts. It’s better for sponsors, riders, and the sport if the implied assumption isn’t that they’re all dirty, and that exceptions, if any, will be noted. And if a reporter believes a rider is clean and for some reason simply must say so, he should at least have the common sense to fish around for a quote or two to do the heavy lifting for him.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe we should take a different cue from the newspaper crime reports, and start labeling most riders as “allegedly clean.”