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Two Silly Opinions About Steroids in MMA

Drugs are bad, ok?
Drugs are bad, ok?

I haven't gotten around to covering this debate between two MMA pundits that I have a lot of respect for so I thought I'd catch the BElitist audience up. The funny thing is the two guys are taking oppositional points but I find both of them to be way off.

First Josh Gross went on the Jim Rome show and followed up his SI piece where he advocated for the UFC to ban fighters who fail drug tests (transcribed by Fight Opinion):

Josh Gross:...the thing about the UFC and people like to frame it this way that they're a league, they're not a league. They're a fight promoter. They frame themselves in a certain way and they couch themselves as a league but they don't have any collective bargaining agreements with the athletes. There's no policy in terms of PED usage. This is not the NFL. There's no clear-cut way for these guys to do it. Now, the UFC has done some really good things in terms of policing themselves when they go out to jurisdiction, when they go out of the country to the UK or Abu Dhabi, they're treating their guys. Two guys have tested positive from UFC testing so I mean there is something legitimate to that. But I think they need to go much further. Much further. And I wrote this week that there should be zero tolerance, you know, it's one thing... the UFC does not have to promote steroid users. They don't have to do it, it's pretty simple. But they choose to do it. Not only have they done that, 2003 Tim Sylvia tested positive, gets a title shot in his next fight. Sean Sherk ‘07 tests positive, ‘08 gets a title shot in his next fight. So, it's not like you know they've done some stuff but they really haven't gone as far as I think they should."

This is one of the tiredest arguments I've ever heard. "Zero tolerance" is one of those uniquely American bad ideas that comes from our ignorance and idealism. But after 40 years of an utterly failed "War on Drugs" featuring zero tolerance policies for everyone from first graders getting expelled for bringing butter knives and Advil to school to teenagers getting decades of federal prison time for simple possession, how can anyone with a functioning cerebellum contend that we need to expand "zero tolerance" to one more area of life. Sorry Josh, but there's no magic wand that can make the bad, bad steroids go away forever and ever so you never have to worry about them again. 

Secondly, the UFC has an enormous financial disincentive to adopt such a policy. When they've had so many belt holders and title challengers fail drug tests why on Earth would they put themselves in a position to potentially lose their biggest stars? One thing we've learned from nearly a decade of drug testing in MMA is that even the biggest legends of the sport -- Hall of Famers like Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock -- can run afoul of the system. The UFC is not, and never will be, in the business of banning its biggest stars from the promotion. Especially when there are competitors who've shown they're more than happy to promote fighters who have been fired from the UFC over drug testing and behavioral issues. Ok, back to Josh Gross on the Jim Rome show:

JIM ROME: "How prevalent do you think the use is in the UFC and MMA or drugs?"


JOSH GROSS: "You know, I've heard estimates anywhere from 30% to 70%. Talking to people in gyms this week, you know, in the wake of the Chael Sonnen thing, I think it's certainly prevalent and it's not the way that it was in the early 2000s even 2002 when state regulatory commissions started testing this stuff but they do it by jurisdiction and the way they test in California is not how they test in Nevada or how they test in Texas, so it's sort of you're going from one place to another. Guys can get by it. it's not that difficult. I grew up with a buddy who ran high-level track internationally and he says, you know, if you want to do it you hire an endocrinologist and you can do this stuff and it's not an issue to get around and until and unless they adopt WADA-quality testing, Olympic-style testing on a wide scale, I don't think anything is going to change which is why I think the UFC has to take a stand."

First off, it's entirely irresponsible to speculate wildly like this with nothing but anecdotal evidence.

Secondly, beating the tests doesn't require hiring an endocrinologist. Good lord, the current tests don't even take blood samples. Any MMA fighter taking PEDs that don't show up in urine -- Human Growth Hormone  for example -- don't have to worry for a minute about getting caught. Not to mention that every gym of note in the country is filled with pharmaceutical enthusiasts with encyclopedic knowledge of PED cycles, drug tests and how to time cycles to beat a urine test being given at a pre-set date (fight night). 

That provoked this equally silly response from Larry Pepe on the Pro MMA Radio (again transcribed by Fight Opinion):

The facts are that in 2009 the UFC put on 21 events. In 2010, there have been 18 events so far. So we're looking at 39 events from ‘09 forward. I went back and looked at the last 7 events where results of drug testing were reported and 92 fighters were tested, so we're looking at an average of about 13 fighters per event. So, over those 39 events that I just mentioned from ‘09 and 2010, and again rough estimates, 500 fighters, 507 fighters would have been tested. Let's use the middle ground of Josh's numbers, let's use 50% as the number. That means that of those 500, by his accounts an average of 250 of ‘em would have been on drugs. How many failed? One. Chael Sonnen. That's it. One. One out of 250. Now, if you think that's just a good year, a good year and a half that the UFC had, as we go all the way back to 2002, I was able to find 10 UFC fighters who have failed drug tests according to a great piece that was on, I would urge you to go check it out, run a search on their site for drug testing: the ultimate guide or something like that, you'll find it... 10 fighters in 8 years testing for steroids, performance-enhancing drugs, 10. That's barely an average of one fighter per year. So, in order to believe that 250 fighters were on drugs yet only one failed, then you have to believe that 249 out of 250 fighters are beating the test or getting extremely lucky, OK?

Larry is just knocking down a straw-man here by demolishing Gross' "estimates" of the % of top MMA fighters using PEDs. But in doing so he's constructing another, bigger straw man of his own by assuming that the testing regimen is remotely effective. Again, it's strictly a urine test meaning right from the get-go, entire classes of extremely powerful PEDs are NEVER going to be detected by the tests. Secondly, the tests are rarely if ever randomly administrated, meaning the fighters know when and where and how they will be administered. 

Pepe's argument is akin to refuting an anecdotal guesstimate of the number of illegal aliens working in the U.S. on any given day and then saying, "Are you expecting me to believe that tens of thousands of people get past our border security every day?" 

Yes, Larry, there is no Santa Claus, fighters routinely pass drug tests despite having used PEDs and our borders are porous. This is because people are smart and resourceful when motivated by money and/or fear. The current testing regime is little better than a speed bump in the road.  

Having said all that, I strongly encourage everyone to listen to both Gross and Pepe in full as they're both smart guys who are seriously addressing an important issue to the sport. They're both wrong, but right now we're all coming up very very short of solving this very tricky conundrum.