Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a drug test over the weekend and his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, is denying any wrongdoing — and blaming cancel culture.
Baffert went on Fox News Monday morning to talk about the test, which could threaten his horse’s Derby win and his own historic racing legacy.
“We live in a different world now,” he told Fox News. “This America is different, and it was like a cancel culture kind of a thing.”
The trainer referenced what he called a "harsh" statement from Churchill Downs, the site of the annual high-stakes race. But the statement is pretty anodyne, indicating merely that Baffert was indefinitely suspended from Churchill Downs races pending his appeal. Medina Spirit’s Derby win may also be erased if Baffert’s appeal is unsuccessful. (Baffert is now claiming the failed test may have something to do with dermatitis ointment.)
“Failure to comply with the rules and medication protocols threatens the safety of the horses and jockeys, the integrity of the sport and the reputation of the Kentucky Derby and all who participate,” the statement said. “Churchill Downs will not tolerate it.”
Such a statement isn’t surprising. Doping is a serious issue in any sport, including horse racing, and competitive bans and the erasure of records are common punishments for athletes caught cheating. Baffert has the right to appeal, but his claims of “cancellation” are gibberish. (Medina Spirit will be allowed to compete in the 146th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, with "rigorous" testing conditions.)
In fact, this is the the fifth failed drug test for Baffert horses in a little more than a year (the trainer had one suspension in Arkansas wiped out on appeal).
Put in context, Baffert’s quick invocation of cancel culture has nothing to do with horse racing. But it is a symptom of a larger simmering issue in American politics.
The term “cancel” first grew from Black culture and gained prominence on Black Twitter when a celebrity did or said something out of line or problematic. From there it spread to other corners of internet culture and eventually became associated with efforts to hold powerful people accountable for racist or queerphobic statements or actions.
Notably, cancel culture has never been a catchall synonym for “consequences.” But increasingly, people like Baffert have tried to portray themselves as victims in an attempt to escape accountability for their own actions. Conservatives especially have rallied around perceived victims of cancel culture (Baffert making his claim on Fox News is not a coincidence). Some have even invoked their “cancelled” status in order to turn a profit on their own notoriety.
Baffert isn’t the only one hoping to incite the specter of cancel culture to gain sympathy or skate on career-threatening charges.
Baffert isn’t the only one hoping to incite the specter of cancel culture to gain sympathy or skate on career-threatening charges. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has gone on a circuit of speaking events and media appearances to complain of being “cancelled” after criticism of his role during the Capitol riot led Simon & Schuster to announce it would not be publishing the senator’s book.
But his book was quickly picked up for publishing by conservative imprint Regnery, which is a distribution client of Simon & Schuster. Hawley still serves in the U.S. Senate, and his tome has become a bestseller on Amazon. He’s not a survivor of vicious leftist cancel culture. He’s a member of the political elite.
Where will this nonsensical wave of conservative grievance over cancellations end? In 2021 alone, manufactured controversies over Mr. Potato Head, Dr. Seuss, Mother’s Day and, just recently, Snow White have become mainstream right-wing narratives. This isn't a vast liberal conspiracy aimed at thought control; it's a conservative fantasy designed to "own the libs."
To go one level deeper: Modern-day conservatism is noticeably lacking in original policy ideas for helping everyday Americans. Instead, right-wing pundits and politicians continually strive for new controversies that will stir their base into a constant, frothing mass of anger over perceived liberal excesses.
This frothing mass of outrage also has an added benefit for people like Hawley, who have been able to exploit their cancellations to find fortune, even as they decry their “cancellation.” Welcome to the cancel culture grift economy.
The same thing happened to Gina Carano, who was let go from her supporting role on the Disney+ show "The Mandalorian" in February over some extremely offensive social media posts. Instead of apologizing, Carano remained defiant, mocking her critics. She was rewarded with a contract for a new creative venture backed by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
A Smith College professor resigned after a bizarre series of statements and allegations of racism at the college. After crying cancel culture, she raised over $300,000 in a GoFundMe that went viral.
When there’s profit and status to be made from crying cancel culture, it’s no wonder that someone like Baffert, who suddenly finds himself backed into a corner, would try to capitalize.
I do believe unfair cancellations can and do happen, but they’re much rarer than modern-day conservatives would have you believe. But when anything can be cancel culture, nothing is cancel culture.