The media's treatment of Shelby Houlihan's suspension diverges into a two-headed deception snake
To be fair to these goggle-eyed pundits, their bungling of basic information stems as much from laziness and ignorance of the sport as from bias and cowardice
Most members of the running media have submitted their responses to the Court of Arbitration for Sport decision about Shelby Houlihan’s doping case released on Wednesday; running being running, the people and outlets we* recognize by name can all fit into a bus-station bathroom, where most of them also compose their best work. Meanwhile, the general sports media and the mainstream press have lobbed a handful of story-like wordbursts of their own into the mix, like Ritalin-charged class clowns dropping Ex-Lax into the already Everclear-spiked punch at their own middle-school prom.
With two notable exceptions—this marvelous ointment in the fly by Alan Abrahamson and Sarah Lorge Butler’s short but emphatic piece for Runner’s World—these stories have ranged from desperate pleas founded on post-dubious technicalities to verbally tapping out and striving to avoid the very fact that Houlihan is suspended, never mind why. At least two of the authors of these stories seem aghast that the judges assigned to the case failed to weigh a chorus of support from Houlihan’s close friends against the blistering farrago of damning biochemical and other evidence that has hopefully ended Houlihan’s running career.
Some of these stories—and I’m including tweets by members of the media as “stories” for self-evident reasons—are misleading on their own, based on misunderstanding or misrepresenting language in the CAS report. Others mislead readers by representing further instances of deafening silence—the continuation of the shattering lack of skepticism that has permeated this otherwise straightforward doping case from the outset. Is any experienced track observer really surprised that Houlihan—or anyone from the Bowerman Track Club—finally peed hot, or is the “surprise” just indignation that an American superstar’s cheating was punished when so much obvious, even reckless doping goes on around the globe mostly unchecked?
We’ve seen doping before. Yes, even in the U.S. But some people only express anxiety and doubts about testing protocols and WADA when an American runner gets nailed for cheating.
I’ll get to the aspects of Houlihan’s career I’m amazed that no one in the running media seems to have emphasized or even indicated knowing about in an upcoming post. But this is what I mean by a two-headed deception snake: Some people are frankly lying about or misconstruing the information in the report, whereas others are working to distance themselves from their own recent ineptitude or hoping people just forget what they said and wrote. Some, of course, are eagerly doing both.
The prevailing tactic in actively sowing misdirection in these stories involves mistranslating the raw mathematical probability that Houlihan is innocent—a number on the order of maybe one in 20 million at best, when you multiply “less than 1 in 10,000” by every other tiny, tiny fraction associated with the various facets of Houlihan’s story—into “unlikely, but possible.”
Imagine these same reporters, or readers who buy into their ideas, operating this way when making everyday decisions. If you thought there was a 1 in 20 million chance you would seriously aggravate an old injury if you went running today, keeping you off the roads for a full year, would you still do it? Undoubtedly. But what if you knew such a setback was instead “unlikely, but possible”?
I realize this is all these media jesters and knaves have, but if you’re going to round down extremely low probabilities to zero 999 times out of 1,000, don’t embarrass yourself with such ill-chosen exceptions.
Anyhow, the round-up below is as complete as can be for a one-person shop.
This PDF was posted online by an anonymous muckraker, who I’d bet $14.23 bazillion is an official Shelbo/Nike functionary, and not only because the contents must have been composed almost in their entirety well before the CAS report lit up the wire on Wednesday.
The timing of this smokescreen’s release represents an unambiguous effort to do exactly what the original BTC announcement of Houlihan’s suspension did: Not change the outcome, but damn it to the oblivion of illegitimacy. This is ultimately aimed not at materially helping Houlihan—that’s out—but at allowing the BTC to continue the illusion of running a clean program despite everyone knowing no clean program wins global-championship medals or sets records, and despite Nike’s decades-long history of regularly featuring dirty American athletes and coaches, specifically in Oregon.
Also, what would compel the author or authors of this document to remain anonymous? Imagine what could be done sport-wide if its allegations could somehow be made to stick.
Jon Gault’s Letsrun piece is a nicely assembled kludge of thorough reporting and unwarranted skepticism. While he appears to have retained enough sanity to accept that Houlihan deserves her suspension, he’s not satisfied with the refusal of a lab official to conduct an additional test demanded by Houlihan’s lawyers when the whole malignant situation had moved well beyond any “Hail Mary” rescuable stage. He hints at attaching special importance to this because that same lab official has lied in the past, but doesn’t beat that drum with real enthusiasm. He suggests that the whole result would have been different had the lab relied on its own 2015 standards, an odd critique to make if I understand Gault correctly here. He relies heavily on the anonymous document listed above for all of this.
I see where Gault is coming from, but I appreciate the court’s viewpoint far more. Had Houlihan’s team gotten the additional testing it wanted, per procedural rules, Houlihan could not have been suspended. But realistically, the lab had every reason to laugh by that point; Houlihan was on Ban Row no matter what. This is redolent of an obviously guilty defendant wanting a continuance of his burglary trial because one of the detectives on the scene has a motorcycle with an expired license plate that’s been sitting next to his garage for six years.
Gault adds that Houlihan’s urine levels of nandrolone metabolites were merely sky-high, not stratospheric. He also throws in the increasingly popular “No athlete would do something that dumb” defense, as if normal people don’t do ill-advised things every day given the right incentives. He knows it’s stupid for journos to lie when everyone can see it, but he sees his peers do it constantly.
Not incidentally, this is the kind of piece I would pay to read first if free running journalism ceased to exist. It’s deep reporting, and to the extent it goes off the rails, it doesn’t do so by distorting, dismissing or outright hiding alternatives. You’re invited to choose your own conclusions based on the available evidence, and in this review I don’t list the many good parts of the piece because that’s a different job (and this post will be 3,000 words long anyway).
BTC reputation manager Peter Bromka made a low-wattage pitch of the same idea on Twitter:The complexity further explained. I don’t personally trust anyone who finds this simple in either direction.
Bromka is just soft-headed. Had he been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, his drum-banging would center on the Grand Canyon having been carved out 10,000 years ago by the same epic floodwaters that made Admiral Noah rely on a lot of Xanax and weed.
It would be lovely if the Peter Bromkas of the world could stop pretending that their dim-witted refusal to commit to cogent viewpoints they dislike is a form of disinterested, reasoned skepticism.
By the standards of traditional American journalism, Chris Chavez isn't just an awful reporter; he's functionally illiterate. He cannot produce a coherent stream of ideas in English despite possibly being able to do so in his mind. Those sentences seem to contain most of the right words, but they look like they've been run through a language blender after being laced with dangerous levels of fanboy-extract.The Athletics Integrity Unit has released a 44-page detailed decision into the Shelby Houlihan case where their panel issued their conclusion into her positive test for nandrolone. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has upheld her four-year suspension. athleticsintegrity.org/downloads/pdfs…
There are multiple correct ways to write a pair of comprehensible sentences summarizing the situation Chavez attempts to summarize here, and more completely at that. Example: "In June, the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld Shelby Houlihan's four-year suspension for a positive nandrolone test in December 2020. The Athletics Integrity Unit has released a 44-page report explaining its decision."
He’s probably the worst in a limited business today, considering he has thousands of equally incurious and noisy waterheads unconcerned with ethics or quality as his fan base. The clarity of his writing might improve a little if he wasn't trying to bury the main message, but he's being his usual non-journalistic weaselly self here. And by picking on his writing, I too have buried the main idea about Chris Chavez, which is that he’s a straight punk liar as well as a fool.
Stealth-editing is the new mea culpa.
I already mentioned this ridiculous, self-debasing tweet by Women’s Running:The panel said that Houlihan brought “compelling character witness evidence in support of her defense,” but failed to establish the source of the nandrolone that was detected in her urine.
The associated story is standard Erin Strout fare—boring, pointless, and sullenly dishonest. "The night before her out-of-competition drug test, Houlihan had consumed a burrito from a local food truck in Beaverton, Oregon,” Strout writes. No. Houlihan said she ate a burrito. And so on and so on with this proud halfwit.
Strout fails at basic reporting even when she knows her every flavorless sentence is being scrutinized. It’s amazing that she has a degree in journalism, not only because she’s corrupt, but also because everything she produces suggests she was just a bored housewife who had never written anything more complicated than a grocery list until last week. Her insistence on taking the wrong side, whether just to be unpleasant or because she lacks the capacity to evaluate basic information, overwhelms her desire to avoid looking like a goof, and she evidently believes she can hide from her critics forever. And as that tweet and many other things demonstrate, she’s determined to continue filtering out annoying people who just. Don’t. Get it.
Even Brits and Canadians are in on the game. From The Guardian: “Houlihan had a lengthy array of witnesses who pointed to her good character." Great! They’re probably moral lepers themselves. Canadian Running more exhaustively hammered away at the same idea:
"Several of Houlihan’s teammates defended her as a clean athlete, including Courtney Frerichs, Lindsey Frerichs, Shalane Flanagan, Matt Centrowitz (whom Houlihan was dating at the time) and Karissa Schweizer. Despite their testimonies, the court found Houlihan to be guilty."
That feelings matter more than facts is one of the pillars of Wokism.
This ESPN story conflates “very, very close to zero” with "highly improbable," which the typical pro-Houlihan reader's beleaguered mind then further upgrades to "possible, therefore probable or even likely!" Again, this theme is rampant in these stories.
The Washington Post, which should be dismantled and floated into Chesapeake Bay, spat up some doggedly sympathetic trash, wherein the author conflates steroid-”tainted” meat with a truckload of androgen in a type of gross, meatish slop that for a cascade of reasons stood zero realistic chance of ever landing Houlihan’s belly.
Alison Wade’s Fast-Women newsletter comes out on Monday morning. This was the entirety of her Twitter response—no preface, just the electronic version of holding her nose and leaning as far away from the overpowering stench of OH NO! as possible:Here's the direct link to the document: athleticsintegrity.org/downloads/pdfs…
Athletics Integrity Unit @aiu_athleticsThe Court of Arbitration for Sport has released the full decision regarding Shelby Houlihan🇺🇸 It outlines that the ADRV must be deemed to be intentional as the athlete did not establish the source of a Nandrolone metabolite in her sample. 👁️⬇️ https://t.co/cBkQOqSHT4 #AIUNews 1/2 https://t.co/JuachXTcRC
Wade later added this tweet:Shelby Houlihan does her first interview since the initial announcement of her four-year ban. She says she still plans to appeal her ban and that she’ll continue to pursue her running goals, even if she can’t do official races for 3+ more years.
The podcast is a joke, including the timing. Wade's commenters are generally as sycophantic as a typical cult member, but she and Strout have both gotten the equivalent of maximal pushback over this, to the extent either can tolerate dissent of any sort without deploying blocking features.
Rather than wait for Wade’s next newsletter, I’ll offer some thoughts on a recent one that nicely captures the complete disconnect between the female-oriented running media’s incessant screaming (“Justice! Fairness! This is a cultural reckoning!”) and the unvarnished core intent behind that screaming (“Clicks! Self-interest! This is my butthole burning!”).
Wade decided to complain about Nike’s renaming the former Alberto Salazar building. She has two issues with this: One, Nike didn’t pick a woman to rename the building after, and two, the company waited too long.
Unless you’re one of the angry women who faithfully reads Alison Wade’s nonsense intentionally seeking to become even more pissed off, you notice a few things. One is that none of the steps Wade says Nike should have taken would have amounted to any material good. Another is that even things that might be beneficial can and will never happen quickly enough to satisfy Wade’s bloodlust.
This leads to the natural question: Is Wade trying to accomplish anything positive, or is she just eager to wipe her ass on everything? After all, if she’s inviting rage, what’s the target?
Is it Nike? I mean, no one thinks Al Sal acted in isolation. If he sucks, so does Phil Knight, even more of a sociopath than Salazar and almost certainly the sole source of any instructions Salazar received and directions he took. Okay, then—if Nike is bad, then why on Earth trust anything offered by the de facto replacement of the Salazar experiment in a scenario like this?
Why pass on an opportunity to support and emphasize an implied thesis—that Nike is indeed associated with catastrophically sad tidings for track and field? Right in our faces?
And yet that is exactly what Wade does. She’s too fragile and lacking in integrity to position herself as any kind of helpful analyst. She wrote this less than two weeks before the news of Houlihan’s suspension broke:
This was her initial response to the news, wherein she fails to explain her sudden, unprecedented mistrust of the entire doping-control process:
Wade and her newsletter are useless unless all you’re after is a trip to a jaws-clenched, dystopian version of feminist fantasyland. Believe me when I say I hear this from women all the damn time.
That cursory survey should do for now.
I don’t expect to put a single dent in the unethical conduct, embarrassing levels of incompetence, and shrewish, fingers-in-ears-against reality cowardice of any of these players and their “My Twitter mob and editorial position at an ad-driven content mill trump your facts” tactics. But however stridently I carry out the mission, it has a positive goal in mind: Quit lying in the capacity of a journalist, and quit ignoring facts the rest of the running world sees. Not only are these not hard guidelines to follow, but they were also once an absolute requirement for holding on to any kind of journalism platform. But in the age of crowdfunded content, and in a running “community” in which under-thirty joggers absent experience and attention spans outnumber those who insist on a fact-based conversation, whoever can stir up the most needless trouble will earn the most attention. I don’t expect this to go away, soon or ever, but I’ll save further dyspepsia and specifics for later.
And a more important topic I’ll also have to table for now: Why did seemingly no one in the U.S. raise their baseline index of suspicion in response to Houlihan’s classic-doper progression, even before she was caught? She had every symptom of an obvious doper. And why aren’t more people in visible openly suspicious of other BTC runners? Will that at least start now, or will everyone in the media continue applying special filters to American runners?