In refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks unwittingly ignited a revolution in how the United States treated African Americans. It was a pretty simple act of defiance as things go, but by staying seated, Parks ripped the scab off long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites in the U.S.
In the decade that followed President Lyndon Johnson signed into law what was arguably the most radical and sweeping civil rights legislation since the Nineteenth Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—was ratified in 1920. African Americans were given the right to vote, protected from discrimination based on their skin color or national heritage and protected from discrimination in housing. What gave the civil rights movement its power was a societal epiphany, a collective dawning of consciousness about the inherent wrong of discriminating against anyone for their skin color. For reasons that we may never fully understand, sufficient numbers of Americans made their voice heard, a voice that said in effect, ‘This doesn’t work; we’re not going to accept this anymore.’
Of course, the road to equal rights wasn’t smooth or easy. There were murders, boycotts, riots, more murders and deployments of the National Guard to keep the status quo when the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves.
I offer that as a backdrop to the recurring themes of today’s news. A majority of the American people have concluded they’re okay with gay marriage. What they’re not okay with anymore are priests and school teachers sexually abusing minors. They’re not okay with the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. And they don’t seem to be okay assault weapons on the streets. The public not only wants change, they see it as necessary.
In our collective rejection of this old status quo I see a parallel to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. We aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to these crimes. My sense is that we’re approaching another societal epiphany, a large-scale sea change, one that will define us as a society that rejects discrimination of any form. Naturally, I hope that this movement isn’t marked by the violence that threatened to overshadow all the progress we were making.
So what’s this got to do with cycling? That’s easy: I see cycling confronting the same issues. I now think Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong affair is the precipitating event to wake cycling fans from their complacency about the problem of doping, much the way Parks’ defiance was the precipitating event in sparking the civil rights movement. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to see the case in this light, but there can be no doubt that the public at large is now aware of just how deeply ingrained doping has been in the sport.
Most of the cycling public ignored nearly all of the accusations against Armstrong and instead chose to believe the fairytale until the release of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Through that I hear echoes of white America’s tacit approval of segregation. Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are little different from the Southern politicians and police chiefs who resisted the new laws, insisting they weren’t going to change how things had been done for generations. Indeed, considering how McQuaid and Verbruggen denounced both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton once they decided to unburden their consciences by confessing the details of their doping, they are no better than Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who directed the fire and police departments to turn fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s demonstration in the spring of 1963. Connor, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, became the public face of Southern bigotry, the quintessential example of the old guard that was standing in the way of the equality we all now take for granted.
If it seems like a stretch to compare segregation with doping, consider that there was a time when seemingly reasonable people saw nothing wrong with separate facilities for blacks and whites—it was the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Similarly, there was a time when taking performance-enhancing drugs just to get through a bike race wasn’t the least bit scandalous. Times change.
Could it be that the new generation of riders are analogous to what my generation was to the acceptance of African Americans as equals in school and on the playground? I think so. In their outspoken denunciation of doping, Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen and Mark Cavendish are a lot like the whites who linked arms with blacks and staged protests in the South. It may also be that riders like Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Dekker aren’t terribly different from Southerners who went with the flow until they recognized the tide had turned.
In shutting down the investigation by their independent commission, McQuaid and the UCI have proven to all but those with the most reptilian of brains that learning the full scope of doping in the sport has never been their primary interest. They lack the vision, the institutional spine and sufficient love for the sport to show real courage by allowing the commission to do the job they were charged with. After being booed by the crowd assembled at the recent Cyclocross World Championships, it seems impossible that McQuaid could somehow be unclear on the will of the people, yet he persists with the obstinate bearing of a smoker who won’t give up his cigarettes even after learning he has lung cancer. In that regard we can draw yet another comparison, this time to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. It was Faubus who called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. You can’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he tried to prevent school integration.
It would be obscene to suggest that the issues cycling faces are as serious as the fundamental issues of equality that the United States wrestled with 50 years ago. But because sport is aspirational, a place in which we invest our loftiest dreams, the drama unfolding as a result of doping has held many of us in a disproportionate crisis. Sport is supposed to be a realm free of the clutches of corruption.
Democracy has a way of pushing aside tyrants in favor of more reasonable forms of engaging the citizenry. History remembers Faubus and Connor as villains who stood in the way of equality for all Americans, men who clung to outdated ideas and refused to change with the times. McQuaid and Verbruggen have denied any wrongdoing during their tenures, instead pointing crooked fingers at the riders, the teams and even the fans. They are our Faubus and Connor. History will show them no quarter.
So what might we expect from the future? It’s not unreasonable to conclude the UCI will be freed of the misguided leadership of McQuaid and Verbruggen following their next election. Of course, that is no more likely to put an end to doping than the civil rights movement put an end to the Ku Klux Klan. The difference is that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t a fringe organization in the first half of the 20th Century, while today it is far outside of the mainstream of social thought. Likewise, drug use was a once widespread practice, but the day is coming when athletes will see doping for what it really is—
the most basic of lies.