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What would happen if the UFC became a WADA Code signatory?

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Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Let's posit something.

Let's assume the UFC decides it has had enough of the performance enhancing drug (PED) issue affecting the sport or, at least, their side of the sport. They want to do something about it and address the matter once and for all. UFC management decides there's no cost too heavy, no regulation too strict, no hurdle they won't climb to have the most comprehensive anti-PED effort among modern professional sports leagues.

They don't know where to turn, so they ask, 'What is currently the toughest, most exhaustive way to combat the use and culture of acceptance of PEDs in MMA?" Answers could vary, but let's say they get the response many, if not most, anti-doping experts are likely to give: become a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) Code and go from there.

As it stands, no professional sports league in North America - not the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL or even the NCAA - have gone so far as that. Each league has formulated their own anti-doping rules and regulations, although most operate at a significant distance from what the WADA Code would ask (numerous industry experts, however, tell MMA Fighting MLB's current anti-doping efforts are the strongest among the aforementioned group).

While no anti-doping effort is perfect (more on this later), becoming a signatory of the WADA Code, and thereby following the list of requirements necessary to be in compliance with it, would arguably demonstrate a massive step towards real anti-doping effort.

But what would that do to mixed martial arts or the UFC? How much would it cost? How would that change the state commission's ability to regulate the sport? Why would UFC even want to do it?

We can't speak for the UFC, but as enhanced testing in Nevada has revealed, the problem of doping is beyond the scope of what current practices and protocols can cover. The pressure is on the world's leader in MMA to do something more. If the UFC decided to take the highest road possible, here's what becoming a signatory would mean for them and the sport:

1. What is the WADA Code?

WADA defines its own Code as "the core document that harmonizes anti-doping policies, rules and regulations within sport organizations and among public authorities around the world. It works in conjunction with five International Standards which aim to foster consistency among anti-doping organizations in various areas: testing; laboratories; Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs); the List of Prohibited Substances and Methods; and the protection of privacy and personal information."

Think of the Code as something akin to a living constitution and directional guide for the most stringent and up to date anti-doping standards, regulations and practices in the world today. The document, which is updated and partially revised, is a one-stop shop that covers everything from doping control (consequences, types of testing, the 'whereabouts' program) to education (types of research, goals of anti-doping education) to the roles and responsibilities of signatories to implementation and compliance with the Code.

The Code is the foundation upon which WADA's anti-doping efforts are based. It's as much a mission statement as it is a technical guide and regulatory framework. It's designed to be universal enough to apply to all signatories, no matter where geographically they may be, but also flexible enough to provide latitude in how agreed-upon principles are applied.

2. In order to be in compliance with the WADA Code, what else would UFC have to do?

Being a Code signatory means also being in compliance with the 'five international standards' aforementioned.

That would require the UFC to adhere to a variety of international standards on what substances are prohibited (a list that is constantly updated and changed), what the means and mechanisms of testing must look like and why, what is and isn't an accredited laboratory and how to use them, and how to protect the privacy of athletes.

3. Ok, but what does that really mean in actual practice?

It means lots of things, but let's focus on the big picture. It would basically require doing the following six things, which are the pillars of any WADA Code-supported anti-doping effort:

1. Random drug testing all year long, both in and out of competition.

2. Adhering to a list of prohibited substances including designer drugs, which includes substances where non-analytical positives show up (designer drugs for which no test can find, but other evidence can be accrued to determine guilt).

3. Implementation of the best legal and scientific policies and practices as they evolve, which must include adequate sanctions and due process protections for those accused of doping violation.

4. Investments into education to help facilitate a change in perspective of about the value of ethical competition.

5. Investments into scientific research to help detect new doping substances or techniques.

6. Partner with law enforcement to help ensure that in addition to athletes being held accountable, the persons who manufacture, sell or traffic the substances are pursued as well.

4. But isn't anti-doping just about effective testing?

Part of what the WADA Code demands is not merely effective testing protocols and procedures, but a larger intellectual or idea effort to buttress the practice themselves. That's as much a reminder to the signatories as it is the larger communities of the sports themselves. After all, the questions of 'Why are we testing?' or 'Why are we testing in this particular way?' would naturally be asked. The WADA Code, for better or worse, provides the reasoning behind anti-doping efforts as much specific guidelines on how to actually combat their use.

Moreover, the Code requires members to both conduct and/or support the results of any research or scientific done to advance anti-doping efforts in addition to sharing the results to help disseminate best practices. UFC would be required, in some capacity (although there's plenty of wiggle room there), to be a part of this process.

5. How would the UFC go about doing this? Aren't they regulated by state athletic commissions?

It's possible they could do it on their own, but they'd most likely have to ask for outside help in the form of an independent, transparent organization. Also, remember WADA merely provides a set of standards and practices, but actually testing and compliance are the responsibility of the signatories.

There are a number of choices the UFC could use to stay in compliance, but the obvious candidate would be the United States Anti-Doping Agency or USADA.

USADA is a non-profit, non-government organization, but is the official anti-doping agency for Olympic, Pan American and Paralympic sport in the U.S. USADA's budget partly comes from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (in other words, the government) with the rest coming from its anti-doping services with other sports organizations. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) uses USADA's services.

USADA is already involved in combat sports when its services have been requested. While much of the testing services for the USOC are generally lauded, questions were raised about its transparency and effectiveness when they provided testing and oversight of Erik Morales and Danny Garcia before their bout in October of 2013.

Still, Travis Tygart, the head of USADA, believes UFC handing off WADA Code compliance and testing to USADA on a year-round basis could work. As he sees it, athletic commissions would still be in charge. As government bureaucrats, however, anti-doping isn't their core comptency. The various parties, Tygart suggests, could work in concert without duplicative services and keeping Code compliance up.

"We're taking this messy drug testing issue off of your plate, so you, as the state commission, can get back to what you do, which is license fighters, license promoters, etc," Tygart says. "Out of 100 percent of their job, 90 percent of the headache is the drug testing issue. You're taking that off of their plate. You enter into an agreement, by which you agree to do that. At the end of the day, if they refuse, they could still run their program, and that's fine. It's just a duplication of resources."

Tygart also argues while Nevada's recently enhanced testing program is far superior to the old regimen of regulation, fewer tests would be fine if year-round testing were involved as opposed to numerous tests in short windows as Nevada currently operates.

Commissions would still hand out punishments for failed tests no matter what, though. After all, they're the ones regulating MMA promoters and fighters by the power of law. They could choose to follow the UFC's request of WADA Code compliance in the event of a positive test or could add additional penalties on top of what commissions decide.

6. What would something like this cost?

Estimates vary, but industry sources tell MMA Fighting the annual costs for a WADA Code signatory with 500 fighters across the planet would be in the range of $3 to $5 million (and likely closer to the higher end of the figure). The overwhelming majority of those costs, sources say, would be attributable to the testing of athletes. The other portions of WADA Code compliance would not be expensive or uniquely burdensome.

MMA Fighting reached out to UFC to determine what costs they would comfortable with in terms of annual spending on anti-doping testing and efforts. As of the time of this writing, they have not responded.

7. How could UFC afford to pay something like that?

There are a number of potential mechanisms to do that. One would simply be cutting costs throughout the organization, although that's a nebulous and not particularly helpful strategy.

Tygart argues that an occasional $.50 surcharge on pay-per-view offerings, a small uptick in cost, would enable UFC to pass on the cost of WADA Code compliance to their customers while generating more than enough revenue to finance their anti-doping program.

8. Let's back up a second. What would all this mean for fighters who test positive for banned substances?

There is some latitude in the Code, but the basic answer is stiffer penalties. First-time offenders could be banned as much as two to four years, although lesser penalties are available as well. Three-time offenders, however, would receive automatic lifetime bans. Needless to say, the implementation of the WADA Code would have a dramatic impact on the business model of the UFC and careers of fighters who are caught doping.

9. Would this all actually work? Would this eliminate PED use in the UFC?

No matter what, there will always be cheating. There is no program that could eradicate doping. Negative tests are not evidence there's no doping going on. Don't forget, the WADA Code standard is widely regarded as the highest and most stringent in existence today. That still hasn't stopped the IOC from saying better and more effective testing is needed.

That said, some critics claim the current WADA Code requirements are expensive and only somewhat effective results. Others have asserted the entire anti-doping effort globally has been a failure.

10. What about non-UFC promoters? Wouldn't they still be exempt from all of this?

Yes, they would. At least in the short run. The costs of running the program are simply too prohibitive for every non-UFC promoter to afford. Perhaps Viacom-backed Bellator would be an exception, but for an organization still trying to find a way to generate sufficient revenue to cover their costs, existing state commission regulation keeps them in legal compliance without additional and burdensome costs.

In theory, the UFC could decide to make $.50 or greater surcharges on pay-per-view as a way to generate enough resources to cover the cost of testing for other promoters, although realistically speaking, that seems unlikely. If the UFC were to pursue this level of anti-doping, it'd likely be doing it on their own until the dynamics of the sport changed or costs of testing dramatically declined.

11. Why would UFC even want to do this?

No North American professional sports league has become a WADA Code signatory, so it's likely the UFC is no different than their peers in that regard.

Tygart believes, though, there's no reason not to do it. Whatever the limits of testing, there's nothing better than this standard especially given how woefully inadequate the current standards are. And while the costs are not negligible, for a billion dollar-organization like the UFC, they're hardly insurmountable.

"No sport that's cared, ultimately, about its integrity and its reputation has tripped up or said the costs can't be overcome," Tygart argues. "They certainly can and sports around the world do it everyday. There are 600 plus sports that have agreed to the WADA Code in 160 countries. The money is not an excuse."

More than that, though, Tygart contends even if the idea that the rights of clean athletes deserve to be protected doesn't resonate as a reason to adopt stricter standards and practices, there are other reasons to adopt measures like these.

"You have to take a step back and say, 'Alright, one, we can't afford not to do this because you end up having bad publicity because a fighter ends up hurting himself or someone else gets hurt, you think of the liability associated with that. This is a cost of doing business that is there to protect the long-term interest and and brand of the business," he says.

"You have to look at it, to a certain extent, like insurance," he notes. "You're going to end up paying a lot more on the back end in the event of a poor collection, like the Ryan Braun case, or if a catastrophic health injury comes out of it. The return on that investment is going to, by far, pay for itself. If you put a good program in place, that's the only way you can go about it."