Anti-doping and the evidence card

Is it fair to ask for a little fairness when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs?

In general, yes. But a lot of devils lurk in the details.

Blame Luke Thomas for this post. The outstanding MMA analyst loves to raise tough questions about drug testing, so this morning, he retweeted an interesting series from Roger Pielke Jr., a Colorado environmental science professor who isn’t afraid to go against the grain — he’s been labeled a “climate misinformer” by Skeptical Science and wrote about his “unhappy life as a climate heretic” for The Wall Street Journal. He’s actually not a climate-change “denier,” and he’s the son of a scientist who has some complaints about being painted as a “denier” when he quite clearly is not. He is also, like me, a Guardian contributor.

(Ideally, when we in the media seek “balance” in climate change reporting, we’d quit looking for “deniers” vs. “everyone else” and demonstrate the spectrum of legitimate climate change science — “not that big a deal” on one extreme, Pielke Sr. somewhere in the middle, and “holy crap we’re all gonna die” on the other extreme. But I digress.)

That said, maybe Pielke Jr. was simply wrong, and when called out on it, he played the “victim of political correctness” card. This exchange certainly offers considerable evidence to support that conclusion, though like a lot of evidence, it’s incomplete. Maybe it’s not his fault he wound up as a poster boy for the “Yeah, I TOLD you all this ‘global warming’ stuff was crap” crowd, but he seemed to be reveling in the attention to a degree. (I’ve been accused of that sort of thing when I’ve gone against the orthodoxy in women’s soccer, too, but I’ve hopefully made it quite clear that I’m not on the side of the “don’t give gay women rights” people.)

So it appears Pielke has turned his attention to issues in sports, where we could use a bit of healthy skepticism. Sounds good. Maybe he can take whatever lessons he learned from his experience in climate debates and apply them here.

His series of tweets on anti-doping, taken from a presentation he gave in Norway, raises some strong points but also shows the pitfalls of setting too high a bar for evidence. Pielke wants everything to be black and white. I’m not sure that’s possible, in climate change or in anti-doping. (Or in criminal justice — where “the CSI effect” is a headache for prosecutors who can’t deliver the “aha!” moments that their fictional counterparts can.) Humans will never be omnipotent, nor will we be able to anticipate every eventuality. There comes a time in which we simply have to assess the information we have and make the best decision we can.

So are we splitting hairs because bad decisions are being made? Or do we just enjoy splitting hairs? (I admit — I’m sometimes overly pedantic myself.)

Let’s take a look, starting here with a clever (and apt) cartoon:

He’s clearly not anti anti-doping, which some in the MMA community are. (Not Luke Thomas, who simply takes a skeptical stance, but some MMA fans wax nostalgic for the days of steroid-sculpted bodies colliding in PRIDE.)

He raises a good point in passing with the meme of old white guys laughing at the concept of each country testing its own athletes. I wish he’d gone into more detail on that, because it’s certainly a issue — at least until athletes compete outside their home countries and start getting tested by other agencies. Check out the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency site, and you can see how often athletes are being tested. (Katie Ledecky, the most dominant female athlete today, has already been tested 11 times this year.) Jamaica, on the other hand, is considerably less comprehensive. Being tested by your home country’s independent agency is an improvement over the days of the inherently conflicted sports federations doing it themselves (“Why, yes — we’ll happily disqualify our top medal contenders!”), but we still have inherent inequalities between the mammoth agencies in big, rich countries and the agencies in smaller countries with less money to spend on pee tests.

But Pielke’s main argument — one absolutely worth weighing — is that drug testing and its sanctions are too arbitrary. They’re not “evidence-based.”


One good example: the Prohibited List himself is governed by a process ripe for abuse. That’s a sound argument that bears repeating.

But the flaw here is that he often sees malice where others would simply see limitations. Classic example:

It’s the same problem we see in a lot of media criticism. “Oh, you guys wrote that bad story about New Hanover High School because you all went to Hoggard,” a caller to the Star-News once told our sports staff — none of whom had gone to high school anywhere in Wilmington.

Here’s the problem: Drug testing is not simple.

I once tried to explain this to a fellow journalist. His response: “Yeah, I think zero tolerance is the only way to avoid all that.” In other words, let’s avoid the muddy water by just making everything cut-and-dried.

That’s simply not going to work.

For one thing, we’re going to have cases of substances taken accidentally. Human beings can’t write a code that takes every possibility into account. Suppose we have an Olympic competition in which all the food was cooked with trace amounts of clenbuterol? We’re going to have to apply sound guidelines from the Code and precedent built through case law.

Then we get the stunning proclamation from Pielke — “Education. Doesn’t. Work.” If I were in one of Pielke’s classes at Colorado, I’d be tempted to write that on my final exam and walk out of the room.

He’s basing that on a quote from a WADA survey several years ago. Check the summary, and you find this: “Anti-doping education is a relatively young research field with few examples of best practice.”

Also noteworthy from this study: It’s based on efforts to combat bullying, alcohol, tobacco and social drug use. If Pielke is really suggesting education is useless in all of these efforts, we’re going to need to see much more evidence. (I actually couldn’t find the quote he cites in the report — I’m guessing it was included with some supplemental material that’s no longer there? I’m not going to conclude anything from WADA’s labyrinth of a website.)

In other words — it seems rather odd to accuse anti-doping efforts of not being “evidence-based” and then jump to a whopper of a conclusion based on … very little evidence.

All that said, a lot of Pielke’s recommendations are difficult to argue against:

But again, the devil’s in the details. And those details may have some gray areas that we’re going to have to navigate.

(Naturally, Saturday Night Live‘s site doesn’t have the sketch in which Johnnie Cochran responds to critics saying he’s playing the “race card” by complaining that the O.J. prosecution is playing the “evidence card.”)


On drug testing, MMA, the Diaz brothers, invasions of privacy, etc.

One thing I enjoy, perhaps more than I should, about my weird career path is the intersection of Olympic sports and MMA when it comes to the ever-entertaining world of drug testing. I did a lot of grunt work on the topic back in the day for USA TODAY, and I like finding a use for that otherwise useless knowledge:

  • The BALCO timeline, where we learned athletes can be suspended for doping without failing a test. (This piece is cited in a surprising number of scholarly papers.)
  • The Jerome Young case, a classic example of an athlete who had plausible deniability until he didn’t. (That might remind you of Marion Jones or Floyd Landis, another case I followed in detail.)

But I also learn a lot from the MMA community’s response. MMA writers and fans are often looking at drug testing with fresh eyes. And hopefully most people have lost their perception of MMA writers and fans as just a bunch of know-nothing “dudebros.” I’ve written for USA TODAY and a bunch of other big brand names (ESPN, The Guardian, etc.), and I’ve written for Bloody Elbow. I’ve seen Bloody Elbow do a lot of journalism I wish USA TODAY would do.

But my USA TODAY colleagues have done some terrific reporting on drug testing over the years, including this funny collection of anecdotes that show how drug testers can show up pretty much anywhere at any time. The formatting has broken down over time, so I’ll copy the first few paragraphs — follow the link, and you’ll see the rest, including a really funny story from Adam Nelson that I incorporated into a blog post when he finally got his gold medal.

Imagine being an athlete who’s off on a fishing trip, out in the Missouri countryside at a remote pond, and up drives a member of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to get a urine sample for drug testing.’s off on a fishing trip, out in the Missouri countryside at a remote pond, and up drives a member of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to get a urine sample for drug testing.

That happened to U.S. shot putter Christian Cantwell, who says, “We did it right there, in the woods.”

Cantwell also was tracked down recently for random testing while going into a casino. The USADA representative arrived when a dehydrated Cantwell wasn’t ready to produce, and during the ensuing two-hour wait he was certain he was missing out on a hot roll at the dice tables.

“When I got to the table they had just paid out $30,000 in a half-hour,” Cantwell says. “Next time I see that guy, I’m going to tell him he owes me money.”

Such anecdotes are common for U.S. athletes who compete in Olympic sports, and who are subject to year-round drug testing by USADA. And those stories are a reminder that, despite the few Americans who have been caught up in the BALCO steroids scandal this year, there are thousands of U.S. Olympic hopefuls who pass drug tests monthly, or even more often.

All of those athletes must keep USADA informed of their whereabouts at all times, and they all have to be willing to head for the bathroom — or woods — when USADA comes knocking. Which can be at any hour.

The MMA community is still somewhat new to this sort of drug testing, and they don’t find it quite as funny. Not yet, anyway. Maybe when they get used to it. And maybe when it doesn’t involve Nick Diaz, who has already documented an unpleasant exchange with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The Diaz case is unusual by any standards. Nick and his brother Nate are among the most vocal marijuana advocates in sports. Nick once turned a Strikeforce conference call into a freeform discussion of the merits of pot. (Disclaimer: I’m a little biased here because the smell of pot makes me nauseous, ruining many a good concert for me, and I have a enough life experience to know the “hey, it’s harmless” lobbyists are overstating their case. That said, I don’t see the legal case to treat it any differently than alcohol, and I’m certainly not a fan of draconian penalties, whether it’s prison time or the five-year suspension — later dropped to 18 months — Nevada handed Nick Diaz, prompting enough justifiable outrage to make the White House take note.)

Worth noting here: As USADA explains in a Marijuana FAQ that I’m sure the pro-pot lobby will not enjoy reading, pot is only prohibited in competition. The out-of-competition testing is designed to catch people filling up on every form of steroid known to man, all of which can give athletes an unfair advantage even if the drug has passed out of their system when they compete. Marijuana doesn’t work that way.

And Nick is back in the news now because he has three “whereabouts” failures. Yes, as the story above points out, athletes have to share their whereabouts with USADA, but the good news for athletes is that there’s an app for that. Under USADA’s agreement with the UFC, which is similar to but not exactly identical to USADA and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) agreements with other organizations, he’s subject to a possible suspension of 6-24 months.

Nick doesn’t seem too interested in fighting these days, anyway.  But athletes are generally responsible for filing retirement papers if they don’t want to compete any more, as USA Track and Field warns its athletes in a list of doping suspensions that happens to include a lot of “whereabouts” infractions. In fact, that list includes at least one athlete who hadn’t filled out his retirement papers and then refused to give a sample. He was suspended, but that just means un-retiring would be complicated.

So the MMA community has raised a few questions:

Good question. As is this:

I’ve never understood the random test process, either. But USADA is certainly transparent about the number of tests it conducts. A few random facts:

  • Your current 2017 drug-testing leaders, with 7 tests each: Vitor Belfort, T.J. Dillashaw, Mark Hunt, Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem, Valentina Shevchenko, Tecia Torres.
  • 2016 leaders: Anderson Silva (15), followed by Eddie Alvarez and Dominick Cruz with 14 each.
  • Ronda Rousey was tested nine times (cue Ferris Bueller reference) in 2016.
  • Rio 1,500-meter gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz was tested 17 times in 2016, more than any other track and field athlete.

And USADA tests a lot of sports, mostly but not limited to Olympic and Paralympic sports. Yes, Paralympic — the current list of sanctions includes athletes in sitting volleyball, wheelchair curling, paralympic judo, paralympic table tennis, etc.

In discussing all this yesterday, this Tweet came up:

This ties into another issue in MMA today — UFC fighters, like most athletes in individual sports, aren’t employed by the organization in which they compete. It’s a bit much to cover in a post that’s already too long — look up coverage of fighter unions and so forth. Labor lawyers are going to have a field day with this for a while.

So we were discussing possible ramifications and this came up:

Thereby establishing that all three of us in the conversation are DMV residents who’ve had their hearts broken by the Capitals every year. *%^##@ing Crosby …

And Backstrom was indeed kept out of the Olympic final, though the case was a bit complicated, and it did indeed not affect his play with the Capitals.

Of course, in the world of MMA, you can always fight somewhere else. See Mirko Cro Cop, who’s on USADA’s suspension list until November but has recently been fighting in Rizin overseas.

In the Olympic sports world, forget it. Lance Armstrong’s cycling ban even carried over to triathlons and swimming for four years.

Which raises one question: Will the Diaz brothers’ attitude toward anti-doping eventually limit their triathlon options? Or do they just plan to do recreational triathlons, which aren’t subject to the same scrutiny? (Which seems only fair. Anyone who’d juice up to win a recreational triathlon has some issues.)

In any case, it’s going to be interesting to see over the next few years how the MMA world adapts to anti-doping reality. Or maybe whether the MMA world forces a few changes in anti-doping. Maybe future fighters and shot putters won’t be awakened by someone carrying a badge and a couple of bottles.


Chael Sonnen’s “Nobody told me” defense

A bit of context for today’s California hearing in which UFC middleweight contender Chael Sonnen made his case to have his suspension reduced or waived:

1. If this were a USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) or WADA (World) case, Sonnen would be toast. Ignorance would be no excuse.

2. That said, USADA and WADA have spelled out their rules in painstaking details, and the chain of authority is clear. Sonnen has come up with plausible scenarios to suggest the chain of authority was confused somewhere between Nevada, the UFC, California and some doctors of unknown employ. And you never want to hear a commission member say, “Moving forward, we need to have a rule.”

3. THAT said, Sonnen’s story had a few unfortunate assumptions and admissions on his part. He assumed that California’s system of notification was the same as Nevada’s. And he really doesn’t want to appeal to the legal system with the notion that he didn’t disclose something, even as an incremental step in the whole process, because he was worried that another fighter might peek over his shoulder.

The bottom line here is that Sonnen is asking for leniency on the basis that he was confused. California likely has no precedent that fits this case, and the commissioners will have a lot of discretion to set that precedent.

Given that, Sonnen really needed to come across as sympathetic. He needed to let his lawyer poke holes in California’s processes while he appeared humble and contrite.

Did he do that?