The greatest enemies in MMA's drug war: cynicism and despair
Ben Fowlkes article from MMAJunkie.com:
Can we talk about drugs for a minute here, fight fans? I realize that most of us have been conditioned by parents and schools to run and find an adult when someone starts a conversation that way, but hear me out, because this is important.
Glance around at the big MMA headlines over the past few weeks, and you see it everywhere. Here's Jon Jones blasting Chael Sonnen for his use of testosterone-replacement therapy. There's Roy Nelson sensationalizing/bungling his own attempt to lure Shane Carwin into some form of supplemental drug testing before their fight at The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale. Don't forget Rosi Sexton, who says she may be done with MMA after her opponent pulled out of a VADA-tested bout citing illness.
Of course there's also Jake Shields, whose win at UFC 150 was changed to a no-contest after he popped positive for some mystery substance that no one will name, and Matt Riddle, who tweeted out a photo of his medical marijuana card after his UFC 149 win was erased following a positive test for, well, you can probably figure it out.
Somewhere in there we also got word that one fighter on the UFC 152 card in Toronto received a therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone, but the UFC won't say who it was, which leaves us to play a sad little game of "Guess Who (Was Jacked Up on a Powerful Performance-Enhancing Substance)?"
Again, this is just the past couple months. Let's not even mention what happened the most recent time the UFC heavyweight title went up for grabs, when the original opponent was scratched due to an overabundance of testosterone in his system and the replacement opponent fought with a prescription for the very same substance. And hey, that was fine, according to both the UFC and the Nevada State Athletic Commission. But let someone like Riddle or Nick Diaz pop positive for the mostly harmless recreational drug that their states have given them permission to use, and there's no mercy to be found.
If all this doesn't depress you as a fight fan, I have to assume it's because a) you like performance-enhancing drugs more than you dislike cheating, or b) you're already too cynical to get worked up about it. It's the second explanation that worries me the most. It is an entirely reasonable and rational response to a problem that feels too big to get our arms around, not just in MMA, but in sports in general. You look at everything from cycling to pro football, and it seems like you might as well divide everyone into two categories: the cheaters we know about and the cheaters we don't. Seems like everybody's on something, so why bother?
That's an understandable position, but also a pretty useless one. It's like telling yourself that you'll never get what you want in life, so the best you can do is not try to keep your expectations low. It's a philosophy that usually works. Planning to be unhappy is a plan you can follow through on with remarkable consistency, but it only succeeds in keeping you at a certain baseline level of despair. That's why cynicism, whether it's applied toward the prospects for a clean sport or a clean political process, is so attractive and yet so dumb. The cynic gets to say "I told you so" a lot, but he has to do it with a bitter, defeated tone. What fun is that?
My point is, yes it's a problem. Yes, it will probably always be a problem to some extent. And yes, we should still try to do something about it.
Just look at what's happening right now. Fighters such as Sonnen, Frank Mir, Dan Henderson and Forrest Griffin (to name just a few) can turn in their paperwork and get permission to inject themselves with testosterone. Not sure if you knew this already, but testosterone is a steroid, one that can be used in a fast-acting form that allows levels to return quickly to the hazy "normal" range. And this steroid, which goes from being illegal to legal based on when an athlete is tested for it? Yeah, it's being approved for use among people who try to hurt each other for a living. Sound like a good idea to you?
Meanwhile, fighters such as Riddle and Diaz get popped for marijuana, which poses no added risk to their opponents, and which remains in the system far past the point of being active. So it's not just that our drug policies in MMA are weak and potentially dangerous, they're also ridiculously unfair and unhelpful.
And I know, this where some deep-thinker will pop up and tell us that life isn't fair, that we should stop complaining and move on. That's what you say when the unfairness seems like somebody else's problem. If those same people got scammed out of their savings, I'm guessing they wouldn't shrug it off as another instance of life being inherently unfair. That's why we have rules, to make things more fair. That's why we tell our athletes that there's a list of substances they can't use to improve their performances, and then test them to see whether they got the message. Or at least, that's how we do it in theory.
In practice, we tell them that there are certain powerful performance-enhancing substances they can't use unless they really, really want to, and then only after they get permission from a doctor with no particular expertise in the matter. Then it's out come the needles.
That brings us back to cynicism. You know that helpless feeling you get when it seems like everyone in sports is cheating and there's no way to stop it? That isn't just for fans. It works the same way for fighters. They read the same articles and hear the same stories. They're as prone to despair and disillusionment as any of us, if not more so.
What are you supposed to do if you want to compete clean, but drug use in your sport is so rampant that doing so seems laughably naive? If we expect fighters to cheat, why shouldn't they expect the same from themselves and each other? If you've given up hope for a clean, fair sport contested on an even playing field, how are they supposed to feel?