What The Mitchell Report Can Teach Us About Steroid Use In MMA

Chael Sonnen flexing his testosterone fueled biceps at UFC 148. Photo by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting.

When Chael Sonnen was given a potential shot against Jon Jones, I couldn't help but wonder "what if?" What if Chael had pulled off the certifiably impossible, and won LHW gold? Perhaps more importantly, would the legitimacy of the belt ever be in question, given Sonnen's background with steroids?

Not too long ago, Lance Armstrong forfeited his Tour Titles against the pressure of charges filed against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Deadspin was all too happy to note that should the seven cyclists who were runner ups inherit the Titles, they'd be facing doping scandals of their own.

This is one of the few issues where Jon Jones seems to draw support from the growing legion of critics who think he's some kind of Bond villain for refusing to take an illegitimate title fight that cancelled a card Dana White was responsible for.

"I believe if you're healthy enough to play a sport you shouldn't take any components, enhancement drugs or testosterone," Jones is quoted as saying.

One of the things I touched on awhile back in discussing Cyborg, was a rather unique pattern of who was getting caught cheating (from PED use) when looking at the numbers in the famous Mitchell Report. I don't mean to rehash the topic, but to quickly recap, what Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim, in their book Scorecasting, were looking at were numbers showing a connection between where baseball players came from, and the probability of being caught for PED use.

The idea was that the more the player had to gain, the more likely they were to look for advantages to achieve those gains (steroids being a pretty example of an advantage).

"Although American players account for 73.6 percent of those in the Major Leagues, they represent just 40 percent of suspended drug offenders- about half as many as one would expect if drug suspensions were simply proportional to demographic representation. In contrast, Dominicans represent barely 10 percent of Major League players but account for 28 percent of the drug suspensions-more than two and half times more than their representation would indicate", they note.

The lower the GDP per capita, the more representation of players from the more impoverished countries such as Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, etc. Simply put, there is an economic incentive to use steroids. If you live in a population where infrastructure, education, and health are below the standard of living, the reward is much greater than the risk. Being suspended is not much punishment once juicing has gotten you past a certain threshold. It's an argument that grows stronger when Moskowitz and Wertheim focused on US born players: who yes, are more likely to be caught if the income is lower in the metropolitan statistical area from which they were born.

But Moskowitz and Wertheim wanted to make sure that the idea of "steroids as incentives" weren't exclusive to foreigners from low income communities. If you think of steroids as incentives, what kind of player who is wealthy, with plenty of experience of behind him would cheat? The kind of player who has too much experience, and needs to show people that he's still got something left? You'd guess correctly. Of the US born players who were caught, the average age was 27, while the average age for Dominicans and Venezuelans is 20-21.

So, now the question for the MMA world is this: can we see similar patterns?

Unfortunately there's not much in terms of raw data. For one, there's not a strong movement to have proper testing done for MMA athletes. Plenty of MMA organizations go places where testing is minimal, but no other organization leaves a wider gap in what we might have learned than with Pride, who tested, but did not publicize their results. Two, the data that does exist doesn't seem to discriminate like it does in baseball.

Look at some of the most high profile busts: Josh Barnett (34), Tim Sylvia (36), Kimo (44), Nate Marquardt (33), Vitor Belfort (35), Stephen Bonnar (35), Chris Leben (32), Royce Gracie (45), Pawel Nastula (42), Johnnie Morton (40), Jorge Ortiz, Phil Baroni (36), Sean Sherk (39), Hermes Franca (38), Anthony Torres, Bill Mahood (45), Adam Smith, Jason Winthers, Ruben Villareal (42), Dennis Hallman (36), Alexander Crispim, Carina Damm (33), Antonio Silva (32), Pequeno (34), Edwin Dewees, Kirill Sidelnikov, Ken Shamrock (48), Cole Province, Chael Sonnen (35), James Irvin (34), Thiago Silva (29), Kevin Randleman, Cris 'Cyborg' Santos (27), Muhammed Lawal (31), Alistair Overeem (32), Fiejao (31), Jeff Monson...

I've added the age numbers because they confirm to Scorecasting's own theory: that the older the player, the more likely they are to be users. Granted, most of these fighters were caught when they were younger, but the threshold for athletic peak years will always be the same.

On top of that, there's an old elephant in the room; demographics wise, there's not much to glean from this sample. There are just as many Brazilians as there are Americans. Perhaps that's because that while they may not come from low income backgrounds, they nonetheless participate in a low income sport.

Whether or not the UFC needs to pay the fighter more is another topic. But the UFC acts as a producer, and promoter in this sport. So fees normally handed out by an independent promoter, like training expenses, are not the responsibility of the UFC. As our old colleague Jonathan Snowden documented, this means even a fighter earning $250,000 can come away with only 122 thousand given the expenses for their manager, travel, housing, taxes, supplements, coaches, etc.

This was the impetus for Dong Hyun Kim's complaint, who revealed exactly how these numbers break down, and why it's such a burden for fighters. Especially foreign fighters. Tony Loiseleur communicated this to me awhile back when talking about the decline of Japanese MMA, and how for example, the prize for amateur fighters can sometimes take the form of necessities, like whey protein; a fact further emphasizing the lack of funding for MMA athletes.

Some of this discussion is sidestepped by the loophole that is TRT. Without addressing too much all in one post, the fightmedicine blog does a good job of explaining TRT, especially as it relates to causes. However, Findings from the Academic Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes reveal the high risk of hypogonadism (or pituitary dysfunction) following traumatic brain injury. Another abstract from PubMed breaks down some of the numbers:

On the other hand, there is a high frequency (15% to 68%) of pituitary hormone deficiency among TBI survivors in a long term setting. Post-TBI hypogonadism is a common finding after cranial trauma, and it is predicted to develop in 16% of the survivors in the long term. Post-TBI hypogonadism has been associated with adverse results in the acute and chronic phases after injury.

But even if this gives weight to TRT use, it doesn't legitimize individual cases. After all, there is evidence to suggest painkiller and steroid use also contribute to pituitary dysfunction.

Perhaps this is the dilemma MMA faces; that athletes have the option of cheating behind closed doors, or in plain sight, and incentives simply exacerbate the problem. When it comes to PED's, they're like the turtles in the unmoved mover paradox. It's testosterone all the way down.

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