Last week brought the story of mixed martial artist Chael Sonnen’s appeal hearing before the California State Athletic Commission of his suspension and fine for his failed August drug test.
In a nutshell: Sonnen claimed, none too convincingly, that he had a thoroughly cleared therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for prescribed testosterone. In a messy compromise, a divided commission halved the length of Sonnen’s suspension, from a year to six months, and upheld his $2,500 fine. For details, I recommend the coverage of Dave Meltzer of Yahoo Sports, at http://sports.yahoo.com/mma/news;_ylt=Ak_8uZogiSnShXi0XrLaW9E9Eo14?slug=dm-steroidhearings120210.
For our purposes here, the Sonnen case has a number of applicable lessons. World Wrestling Entertainment’s Chris Benoit had a TUE, and that is why he was said to have “passed” his WWE drug tests under the company “wellness policy” prior to his double murder/suicide in June 2007. The postmortem toxicology would show that Benoit had a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio of 59-to-1.
Sonnen’s August test, triggering his suspension, was 16.9-to-1. “Normal levels are 1-1, and allowable levels in most sports ... is 4-to-1,” Meltzer points out. Moreover, in legit sports, even when TUE’s are granted, they are for the purpose of bringing abnormal hormone levels up to allowable levels; they do not excuse levels above 4-to-1.
A key takeout from the California athletic commission is that a government agency at least has tried to do its job and its mission is a good one. The length and rigor of last Thursday’s hearing were understandably panned – but, heck, at least it was a public hearing and this important conversation is out there where it belongs. Regulation doesn’t make things perfect. It makes things better. That is rather important when lives and public health are at stake.
Contrast that complicated but just process with the complete opacity of WWE’s internal procedures, all of which are in the end tightly controlled by Vincent Kennedy McMahon. After the Benoit toxicology report and during the 2007 Waxman Committee staff interviews, the WWE drug-testing administrator, David Black, made the ludicrous claim that testosterone-to-epitestosterone readings are meaningless. How much did he get paid for that whopper?
At the time WWE also employed a half-hearted colleague of Dr. James Andrews’ sports surgery clinic in Alabama – a doctor named Tracy Ray – to review wrestlers’ TUE claims for McMahon’s final review. But Ray was not an endocrinologist and he didn’t really tackle the problem. “There is shadiness in almost every case,” he conceded to Congressional investigators.
For as long as people were looking over his shoulder, McMahon reached out to perhaps the most prominent expert in the field, Dr. David Auchus, to redesign WWE’s standards for TUE’s. But after Auchus submitted his recommendations, WWE paid him for his time and never contacted him again. The endocrinologist who is part of the medical staff now, Dr. Vijay Bahl, is – guess what? – yet another physician out of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. That is the same institution that has given WWE the flawed work of medical director Joseph Maroon and cardiologist Bryan Donohue.
No company in combat sports, whether real or “worked,” should be trusted to regulate itself.