Allowing Testosterone While Punishing Marijuana Use Does MMA No Favors

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It took the Nevada State Athletic Commission roughly 40 minutes to decide that Chael Sonnen should be given permission to inject himself with testosterone in the weeks before a title fight with UFC champ Anderson Silva this summer. It took the same regulatory body about three hours to decide that Nick Diaz should pay for his marijuana use with a year-long suspension and 30 percent of his last fight purse.

If you think those decisions made the sport of mixed martial arts cleaner and/or safer, then I want to know where you got that prescription for whatever it is you’re smoking.

The NSAC told us -- as well as the fighters it regulates -- a lot about how it plans to handle the issues of both recreational drugs and performance-enhancing ones in the future. The big takeaway from Monday’s marathon session? Ask first. And if someone brings up all those times in the past when you didn’t ask? No biggie. Just go ahead and blame someone else.

That’s the playbook Sonnen followed when requesting a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone, and it worked. Although he’s fought in the state of Nevada several times since 2008, when he said he began regular testosterone treatments, he never mentioned that testosterone use on his pre-fight medical questionnaires. He also never got caught for it, which tells us something about the effectiveness of the commission’s drug tests, but let’s not get distracted with that just yet.

What commissioner Pat Lundvall wanted to know on Monday was why Sonnen signed his name to those medical questionnaires when he knew very well that he’d left out some important info. His answer? Matt Lindland, his former manager, told him to. Sonnen said Lindland claimed to have spoken to executive director Keith Kizer, been given the green light, and was then told "don’t bring it up again."

"If I understand what your testimony has been it’s that, you claim that your manager told you that Keith Kizer said, ‘You got an exemption, don’t tell anybody about it, don’t bring it up, lie on your form as to whether you’re taking this prescription.’ Is that your contention?" Lundvall asked.

"No, I wouldn’t use those words," Sonnen replied. "I certainly wouldn’t use the word ‘lie.’"

And why would you? It’s such a nasty word. It has all kinds of negative connotations. Lying on a pre-fight medical form is serious business. Just ask former Strikeforce champ Mo Lawal. He failed to mention his knee injury and the use of a supplement to aid that injury on the exact same questionnaire, and it didn’t go well for him when he got his day in court with the commission to address a positive steroid test. If only he’d known enough to blame Lindland.

Amazingly, this was all it took for the commission to skip over Sonnen’s prior history of non-disclosure. Lundvall asked whether he had "any qualms" about signing his name to a form that didn’t mention the testosterone he was using. Sonnen said he didn’t. Really? Lundvall wanted know. No qualms at all? Not even a hint of qualms? Nope. Sonnen was qualms-free. He had come before the commission completely qualms-less.

And that was that. On to other business.

Okay, so it wasn’t that simple. There was also a doctor (not an endocrinologist, but who's keeping track?) who called in to say that he believed Sonnen was indeed suffering from low testosterone as a result of secondary hypogonadism. Sonnen answered some questions about how and when he ingested the testosterone, agreed to submit to increased testing -- including a test the morning after the fight -- and then the commission decided that everything was in order. It even praised his honesty and asked if he would be willing to serve "in an advisory capacity to Mr. Kizer." Sonnen, ever the magnanimous gentleman, said that he would. Exemption granted.

Funny thing about the morning-after testing, which seemed to ease so many concerns for the commission. According to BALCO founder and doping expert Victor Conte, such testing is pretty close to useless. As Conte wrote in an email statement on Tuesday:

"Anyone who understands how anabolic steroids work knows that an athlete does not perform at their peak while using steroids. For example, sprinters actually run much slower while on steroids because they cause muscle tightness. Steroids work by a process known as cell volumization and this makes an athlete's muscles tight or ‘pumped,’ which actually reduces functional muscle performance. The peak performance gains come 10-14 days after tapering off of testosterone. This is when an athlete becomes much more explosive and significantly faster. So testing an athlete at a time when he has tapered off a substance on purpose to maximize the performance benefits makes little sense. The period from 10 weeks out from a fight until 2 weeks out should be the targeted drug testing period. The NSAC seems to lack a basic understanding of the way testosterone is used by athletes."

Fortunately, however, it’s not going to let anyone get away with puffing weed, which might give them an unfair advantage by relaxing them during training. That was just one of the many stances the commission took when it was Diaz’s turn to make his case. While Diaz’s lawyer argued the distinctions between in-competition and out-of-competition use, as well as the differences between marijuana and marijuana metabolites, the commission remained unmoved. It had made up its mind on Diaz, and wasn’t about to change it.

While UFC heavyweight Alistair Overeem got a nine-month suspension for elevated levels of testosterone -- a substance whose performance-enhancing capabilities are so well known they don’t even need to be argued over -- Diaz got a full year for a substance that seems to be performance-enhancing only in the sense that he enjoys using it. Maybe he should have claimed that his doctor slipped it to him by accident. Maybe he should have insisted that Lindland came up to his hotel room before the fight and blew the smoke in his face, against his will.

It’s possible Diaz and his legal team could have made things easier on themselves if their strategy hadn’t involved challenging that commission’s entire mode of thinking when it comes to marijuana usage. Trying to get an athletic commission to not only admit that it’s wrong, but also to admit that it has been on this issue wrong for many years? That’s a tough sell. If the commissioners can find a reason to maintain the status quo, they will. Apparently they’ll also lay the smack down on whoever tries to challenge them on it.

Whether you believe Diaz legitimately has a marijuana-shaped loophole here -- or, for that matter, whether you believe that Sonnen legitimately has low testosterone -- it’s hard to look at these two rulings and call them helpful, let alone fair. If the sport isn’t harmed by allowing one athlete to artificially increase his levels of a powerful hormone, how is it harmed by allowing another to use one of the least harmful recreational drugs around? If one man’s history of deception can be easily explained by putting the blame entirely on someone else, then how severely can another man be punished for smoking first and asking permission second?

The justice handed down by state athletic commissions has often seemed arbitrary and capricious. The Nevada commission is particularly hard to figure at times, especially when it praises the honesty of those who it accused of lying just minutes before.

On Monday the commission gave us still more mysteries of judgement and justice to think about. It also gave a useful tip to all the fighters out there who are looking for an edge, or even just a buzz: ask first. Who knows? You might even get yourself a gig advising the commission as to how it should regulate that substance you want to use. And wouldn't that be nice.

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