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Click Debate: When should the UFC announce drug test failures?

UFC 198 Open Workout Photos
Cris Cyborg was granted a retroactive TUE by USADA earlier this month.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The saga around Cris Cyborg’s failed USADA drug test played out to much consternation.

The announcement of Cyborg’s potential UFC anti-doping policy violation in December spurred many to call her a cheater and some to assume quickly that she had taken performance-enhancing drugs. Even UFC president Dana White threw her some shade in a video interview with TMZ.

Cyborg did get a chance to tell her side of the story. She was taking a diuretic (one banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, though) for a legitimate medical treatment, she said in a statement, brought on by the effects of a brutal weight cut back in September. Some believed her; others did not. Cyborg’s lawyer Howard Jacobs told reporters a few weeks later that she would be applying for a retroactive therapeutic use exemption (TUE) in an attempt to show USADA and the UFC that it was a prescribed medication she was taking.

Two weeks ago, USADA announced the investigation done by the doctors and scientists on its TUE Committee was complete. Cyborg had been granted a TUE retroactively. She was cleared to return back to UFC competition.

Cue more outrage from people in the MMA Twitterverse.

Cyborg was the first UFC athlete to be granted a retroactive TUE by USADA. The second one flew under the radar so much that this might be the first time you’re reading about it. USADA announced Friday that it had granted UFC light heavyweight Gian Villante a TUE for an inhaler that contained a banned substance.

Villante obviously does not have the same profile that Cyborg does. Cyborg is the best female fighter in the world. She also has a 2011 failed drug test for an anabolic steroid that will cast a shadow of doubt on her until she retires, rightly or wrongly so.

The other big difference between the two cases was that the UFC announced Cyborg’s provisional suspension and potential anti-doping policy violation in December, before the adjudication process could play itself out. The UFC never announced Villante’s potential anti-doping violation when it happened last month, only that he was granted a TUE by USADA and cleared again to fight.

These are not the same instances, of course. Villante disclosed to the doping control officer collecting his sample that he was using an inhaler that had a banned substance before any failed drug test came back. Cyborg did not disclose any information about ingesting a prohibited drug until she tested positive.

UFC vice president Jeff Novitzky told MMA Fighting that the UFC did not announce the potential violation in Villante’s case “it immediately appeared he had a legitimate medical use for the substance, and UFC wanted the TUE process to play out in fairness to Villante before the public announcement.”

“Decisions on immediate UFC disclosures of potential violations are made on a case-by-case basis, balancing transparency and the fairness to the athlete in each case,” Novitzky said.

The UFC — and it is the UFC, not USADA, that announces potential anti-doping violations — has chosen not to release potential violations or give provisional suspensions in certain cases before, notably when Li Jingliang tested positive for clenbuterol last summer and it was immediately suspected that it was due to the contaminated meat issue with that drug in his native China.

If this all seems a little murky, that’s because it is. There is a school of thought — and I understand where it comes from — that feels like the UFC should wait until USADA’s full adjudication process is over before it makes any announcements about violations. That is what USADA does in Olympic sports. The only public announcement comes at the end of the case when a sanction (or no sanction) is decided upon.

I’d prefer, instead, that the UFC and USADA go in the other direction: more transparency. No more case-by-case basis situations like Cyborg and Villante where some will cry impropriety or inequality. Let’s put the cards on the table from the start.

Under the current system, the UFC announces when a fighter has been flagged by USADA for a “potential anti-doping violation.” Those are the words used. The banned substance is not officially named unless the athlete divulges it first.

What does a potential anti-doping policy violation mean exactly? Well, in most cases, it means a fighter failed a drug test or admitted to the use of a prohibited substance. So they should say that. “Potential anti-doping policy violation” isn’t incorrect, but let’s be clear. If someone failed a drug test, just say it. That part is not going to change at the end of the adjudication process. You either fail a drug test or you do not. It’s a fact. Whether or not you were at fault is another story.

And the UFC and USADA should release the name of the substance, too. They keep that under wraps out of fairness to the athlete. It doesn’t always have that effect, though. There are still people who immediately think a failed drug test means steroids. Athletes like Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar and Yoel Romero have been labeled juicers. All of them tested positive for banned substances, but none of them popped for steroids.

It should be stated right away if an athlete fails a drug test and for what substance. When news of a “potential violation” comes out, fans immediately expect the worst even if the substance was something mild. The “cheater” label gets spread around quickly before the fighter has a chance to explain himself or herself. And then once the fighter does, some fans will immediately right it off as lies. It would be easier if the UFC and USADA just came right out and said what it was and ended people jumping to conclusions.

Part of USADA’s job (and the UFC’s job, by extension) is to educate fighters and fans on the entire anti-doping system and its processes. It’s hard to educate when you’re leading with something vague like: “Hey, this athlete might have broken a rule, we’ll find out for sure and tell you in a few months when we adjudicate the entire thing without letting you know anything specific until then.”

Education about such complicated things is difficult in general, but even harder in an era where people only read the headline and think that’s enough to opine on a topic. It would be far worse if no announcement was made about a doping case until the very end, post adjudication.

Imagine the Cyborg hysteria if the only public announcement from USADA was her getting a retroactive TUE. Or the only announcement in Brock Lesnar’s case was him getting a one-year suspension, five months after he tested positive when no one knew he failed a drug test over that period of time.

The UFC already took plenty of heat in July for not making Lesnar go through four months of testing and USADA rightly got beaten up for not expediting the test that ultimately proved dirty. Can you imagine if none of that was out in the open until December? It would be chaos. There could be more calls of collusion and corruption than there already are.

If holding all information until a sanction was ready was the policy, how would the UFC and USADA even deal with a Jon Jones situation? He’d be out of UFC 200 three days before the event, but they couldn't say why? In most of these cases, provisional suspensions come along with the announcements of a potential violation. The public should know who is suspended and that public extends to athletic commissions, who must be kept informed of all the goings-on with regards to doping cases.

MMA is not the Olympics. It’s a 365-day-per-year sport with no offseason. If the UFC didn’t announce potential violations (or, preferably, failed drug tests, to be clear), how would they explain Frank Mir being out now for nearly a year while his case is being adjudicated? It would end up becoming public anyway and should be right from the start.

On the other side of things, it’s also incumbent on fans — and media — to inform themselves of each one of the cases before making generalizations or jumping to conclusions about an athlete. Every single one of these instances is different. For example, Jones might have gotten the maximum one-year suspension from an arbitration panel, but that panel also found that he likely did not knowingly cheat.

Just because you test positive doesn’t necessarily make you a cheater. That’s why there’s an adjudication process. When someone gets arrested, you don’t — or at least you shouldn’t — automatically deem that person guilty. The United States has due process and that’s the way it is (and has to be) with doping, too.

There’s another reason why it’s important for the UFC and USADA to be as clear as possible from the very start. Arrests are made public, just like failed drug tests should be. It is understood, and an inalienable right, that the story does not end there. The trial or adjudication process will play itself out.

Agreeing with how it plays out it is a different thing altogether, just like in the criminal justice system. And, in an ideal world, UFC fighters would have gotten to collectively bargained a drug-testing program and not gotten one imposed on them, but this is what we’re working with.

Transparency is a hallmark of any good anti-doping program. And once it’s there, we can’t put it back into the box. Instead, more transparency, consistency and clarity are needed. Not soft language that leads to rampant speculation.

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