Rare is the time when the UFC is accused of handling tougher PR moments with great finesse. They are, in most cases, the classic wielder of a sledgehammer in situations where a scalpel is needed.
This was the case once again on Tuesday evening when UFC president Dana White and Chael Sonnen--a man White has suggested could take the UFC's reigns one day--went on Fox Sports 1 to address the recent big news of the day, Sonnen's failed drug test.
The substances that Sonnen tested positive for are both regular features of some testosterone replacement programs and staples in some steroid abuser programs. It doesn't take special skills to search terms l ike "Clomiphene," "Anastrozole" and "steroids" and grasp the realities of why the substances that showed up in Sonnen's sample are on WADA's banned substances list.
White and Sonnen both employed a mix of dishonesty and muddying of the waters to minimize the damage.
Sonnen continually pushed that the substances he tested positive for are not illegal, they're banned. This is correct, but is also true of the vast majority of things on the banned substance list.
In Sonnen's words, "These are perfectly legal substances. These are not performance-enhancing drugs. These are not anabolics. These are not steroids of any kind." Except that the role of something like Clomiphene is to increase your testosterone production. Sonnen may need such a boost given that he claims to suffer from low testosterone and was previously one of the faces of Testosterone Replacement Therapy in MMA. When the NSAC executed the sweeping elimination of TRT exemptions, they could well have left Sonnen in an awful spot of needing testosterone as his body not only produces it in low amounts, but has stopped producing it thanks to the long-term introduction of synthetic testosterone.
The NSAC should have had a plan in place for how they would handle the fighters who were on TRT. It seemed that their plan was for those fighters to step back, quit their programs and wait to see if they would be able to get their bodies back in competition shape or if they would have to step away from the sport.
That said, Sonnen chose to agree to a fight while a licensed athlete in the state of Nevada. He chose to do so while using banned substances and, by his own admission, without working with the NSAC to see what options were available as far as disclosure..etc. It's indisputable that this was the wrong way to go about things, and that these choices made a bad situation worse.
At multiple points in the interview, Sonnen suggested that there was no way to contact the NSAC and no way to "know the rules," another demonstrably false statement. The NSAC's rules are quite easy to find and the commission is equally easy to contact.
Sonnen went on to make another absurd claim, "even if I had disclosed it, you have to understand this was out of competition and an athlete does not have to remain off of medication 365 days a year. Not in the NCAA, not in the IOC and not even with the Nevada State Athletic Commission; this is unprecedented."
Except that it isn't.
And Chael's decision to cite the IOC and NCAA only made the statement more bizarre.
The IOC performs out-of-competition testing for Olympic athletes that can take place at any time 365 days a year. Similarly, the NCAA (especially at the D1 level) conducts year round testing wherein an athlete may be subjected to a test before, during or after their sport's season. Additionally, Sonnen's substances are on the list of things that would be tested for during the out-of-competition period in the NCAA, "Although the NCAA tests for all banned drug classes at its championships, only anabolic agents, anti-estrogens, ephedrine, peptide hormones and analogues, diuretics and other masking agents are tested during the year-round program."
You can also add the NFL to the list of sports organizations where testing is year-round.
This seeming call for "gameday only" testing would be a step back as the random testing element has been one of the few things effective in a sport that still has significant issues in PED testing.
Sonnen also tried to add another human element to his use of banned substances. He was using them in the capacity of a fertility drug. The same claim used when MLB players Manny Ramirez (hCG) and Edinson Volquez (clomiphene) and the NFL's Robert Mathis (clomiphene) were caught by their respective leagues.
"Throughout my career, I have had a number of labels," Sonnen crowed. "But in nine months, I will have the label of parent and father and if I have to go through this and choose between having the label of being a father and a parent or having the label of being an athlete, I am going to choose every single time parent and father."
For White, the tactics were similar. He wouldn't let Sonnen completely off the hook, but still laid a great deal of blame at the feet of the NSAC (somewhat fairly). White's appearance was still odd in that it was a president taking to public to spend a great deal of time defending an athlete who failed a drug test.
Compare White's appearance and statements such as, "Chael Sonnen is at this point in his life and his career, where he got married and was trying to have children and he was on medicine to help with fertility and have a baby. This is between Chael and the Commission, but the rules should have been laid out better" with this statement from the NFL as response to Mathis' claim that he was on the very same drug for the same fertility benefits:
The drug for which Mr. Mathis tested positive is not approved by the FDA for fertility in males and is a performance-enhancing drug that has been prohibited for years. Importantly, Mr. Mathis did not consult with the policy's Independent Administrator, a physician jointly approved by the NFL and NFL Players Association. Nor did he consult with his team doctor, the team's training staff, the NFLPA, the league office or the hotline established under the policy to give confidential information to players. Each of these sources would have warned against using this substance.
White also took the opportunity to once again push the UFC as "the guys who have taken the drug testing head on," suggesting that the UFC sees testing more thorough than any other sport. An undeniable falsehood.
He also trotted out another untruth when TRT's history came up, stating, "we only had five guys out of over 500 that were ever on TRT, and it was absolutely legal."
There are plenty of lists to be found which put the number of UFC fighters who used TRT at double White's oft-repeated "five." Todd Duffee, Chael Sonnen, Shane Roller, Nate Marquardt, Vitor Belfort, Frank Mir, Forrest Griffin, Quinton Jackson, Ben Rothwell and Antonio Silva all fought in the UFC while on TRT. Add in Bristol Marunde when he fought for Zuffa-owned Strikeforce and that number is up to eleven.
And there could well be more as not all commissions/situations make exemptions public.
These deceptions benefit no one, really. And only serve to make the UFC, its executives and its fighters look silly.
Both men have been able to get away with these things for so long that it's an established part of what fans expect. Both men "say what they want, to hell with everyone else." It used to be that people considered it charming.
But, like an old high school buddy who you suddenly realize is still living some 17 year old's consequence-free fantasy, it might simply be time for someone to tell them both to grow up.
Note: Some have suggested that Dana's "five" means at the time of the ESPN article. I didn't take it as such as he said "were ever on TRT." Later on, as a response to a different question, he did reference the ESPN article, so maybe that is also what he meant earlier in the interview as well.