Cortney Casey was falsely accused of using performance enhancing drugs back in May this year. The story has faded from the headlines, but the incident had serious, long-lasting repercussions for Cortney. I spoke to Cortney ahead of her fight against Felice Herrig at UFC 218 to find out just how the story played out since Texas exonerated her and reinstated her victory over Jessica Aguilar.
First, let’s look at the background. On May 26th, MMA Fighting posted a story that Cortney Casey had failed a drug test immediately after UFC 211 and her win was being overturned by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR).
This was due to a testosterone to epitestosterone (T:E) ratio of 4:1, which was enough for Texas to immediately fail her without any further investigation. Bloody Elbow pointed out from the start that this wasn’t nearly good enough evidence for punishing an athlete and as it turned out, Casey was completely innocent.
Texas claimed to follow USADA/WADA guidelines, but under those guidelines, further testing is required on a sample with an elevated T:E ratio before sanctions, because there are numerous innocent explanations for such a ratio. UFC VP of Athlete Health & Performance, Jeff Novitzky informed the TDLR of this fact.
The TDLR, rather than listen to one of the world’s leading anti-doping experts, told him he was wrong. He wasn’t.
It took weeks for the TDLR to investigate Casey’s case and when they did, the investigator assigned to the case, Jason DeBord, seemed completely unfamiliar with the advanced isotope-ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) testing that would be performed under the WADA/USADA guidelines the TDLR claims to follow.
It took the TDLR several more weeks to contact USADA about Cortney’s case, which was of vital importance since USADA had also found Casey to have an elevated T:E ratio in the past and had performed additional testing showing it wasn’t due to any performance enhancing drug.
An elevated T:E ratio can be caused by abnormally high levels of testosterone, but it can also be caused by low levels of epitestosterone, which would confer zero performance advantage whatsoever. That’s what seems to have happened with Casey, likely due to birth control medication she was taking.
The whole time this was happening, Casey was suffering abuse from people convinced she had taken steroids and was a drug cheat, based on the initial story incorrectly reporting that she tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone.
Finally, five weeks after informing a journalist that she had failed her test, Texas privately emailed Casey to tell her she was being fully exonerated following the B sample testing she requested and the UFC paid for. The email they sent her contained an apology for how long the investigation had taken, but no apology was given for getting it wrong in the first place by not properly following the guidelines they claim to.
They still haven’t made a public statement.
Iain Kidd: The last time we left off, it was after the TDLR sent you an email exonerating you, but not apologizing for what happened in the first place. Has there been any follow up since then?
Cortney Casey: “I’ve had no contact from the Texas commission since receiving that email.
It’s been like this cloud over me where I don’t really know what I can do to change everyone’s mind who read those articles. Even when I came back to Arizona and went to a few gyms here, some of the coaches and UFC fighters were like, ‘What were you taking?’ and ‘Oh, I thought you got popped for steroids.’ I still had to explain it to those people, let alone the general public. It’s kind of shocking that everyone knew I tested positive, but not everyone knows I even got my win back and that I never tested positive for anything to begin with.
The Camp I’m at now, the MMA Lab with John Crouch, have been behind me the whole time. He didn’t jump on the bandwagon, he has known me a long time and he knew it was something I wouldn’t do. People that know me and have been around me know it was BS from the beginning.
It has been hard. It feels like a cloud that will follow me for a long time. I still haven’t received an apology or public statement from Texas. They didn’t tell MMA Fighting, who originally reported the suspension, that they needed to do a retraction or anything. Dana [White] sent out a tweet saying we’re not going to Texas anymore and a couple of days later I got an email saying it was overturned.”
Iain Kidd: The original story erroneously claimed that you tested positive for elevated testosterone levels, and while that was corrected, a lot of follow-up stories didn’t get that right. Many of those stories also didn’t highlight the major flaws in the TDLR’s methodology. How do you feel about the way the media, in general, handled your case?
Cortney Casey: “The media can write what they want, but at the same time, I feel like they have a responsibility to make sure they dot their i’s and cross their t’s before they throw out an accusation about steroids or anything like that at an athlete. I feel like they need to do their own research instead of just reading one article and making a new article out of what they read. If you’re going to put something out there with your name on it, you should make sure it’s right.
There was one article written, and everyone kind of jumped off of that article and that was that. It sucks, but I can’t change what has happened and I don’t think [how the media works] will change any time soon. People just want to get their story out there, whether it’s exact or not. They just want to make sure that they’re following along with whatever is trending.”
Iain Kidd: One of the ongoing issues was the TDLR claiming they were just following WADA/USADA guidelines in regards to this, when they blatantly weren’t. Several people raised that with them, including you and Jeff Novitzky. Did they ever explain or answer how that happened?
Cortney Casey: “No, that wasn’t answered at all. Even when I was getting phone calls from the Texas Commission when they finally reached out to me, the people talking to me didn’t really know what was going on. They were straight up asking me, “Hey, what did you take to test positive?” and I was telling them, “I didn’t test positive for anything!” I had to tell them that they had to run further tests on the B sample!
This is handled by the same people who hand out licenses for owning exotic pets or running a salon and things like that. This isn’t a section of people who know the ins and outs of MMA and boxing, it’s the same people who handle everything.”
Iain Kidd: After all of this, would you consider fighting in Texas again in the future?
Cortney Casey: “I enjoyed fighting in Dallas, the fans were great. This situation has nothing to do with the fans or the people there, or the venue. I don’t want to take anything away from the fans because their commission is backwards, you know what I mean?
I would fight again in Texas if they offered, but at the same time, I would be questioning everything that went on. I feel like if the UFC is going to these countries and states then USADA should handle everything. They should work hand-in-hand with USADA and all follow the same guidelines.
If we’re following USADA rules, they should as well. I know it’s not that simple, that every state has different rules and stuff like that, but I feel like there should be one set of rules for this stuff.”
Iain Kidd: Most people probably saw that Texas exonerated you and figured that justice was served and everything was fine. What have things actually been like for you since then?
Cortney Casey: “I still get things here and there on my social media. Once your article and a few others ran, some people came up and said, ‘Oh, I’m happy things got overturned.’ But I still have the keyboard warriors and stuff like that. It definitely did die down, but with this fight coming up it picked up a little bit here and there.
It puts a lot of extra stress on this fight. In my head it’s like ‘Crap, what happens if I do lose? People will say it’s because I was on steroids before and that’s why I lost, or they’ll claim I look smaller now, or that I used a loophole and got away with it.’ People will say whatever they want to say to back their assumption.
It puts stress on the fight, because I feel like people will always tie me to steroids. It’s kind of hard. You do whatever you can, you follow all the guidelines, you double and triple check everything you’re taking. I cut back on a lot of stuff just because I’m paranoid now. You have to go on, surround yourself with people who are positive and know your character.
You can’t control what other people think, so you just have to control yourself and your emotions going through it. I feel like I’ve handled it the best I can, but every now and then, it creeps up on me and I’m like, “F**k. This sucks.”
No matter where I go, this is always talked about. I don’t want to deal with it during fight week. I shouldn’t have to deal with it, but I’ll constantly have to deal with it, when I should be getting different questions.”
Iain Kidd: What kind of effect did this have on you financially?
Cortney Casey: “I was getting 3 fights a year, consistently, and this year I didn’t. It hurt me financially. There was a short notice fight I was going to be offered, but it went to someone else because I was suspended.
I lost some sponsors over this as well, because they didn’t want to be tied to someone whose name was linked to steroids. They saw the articles you wrote and apologized, but the other articles are still out there, so it’s easier for them to just not have to explain.”
Iain Kidd: At the time, you were very complimentary of how Jeff Novitzky and the UFC in general had treated you and handled the situation. A few months on, is that still how you feel?
Cortney Casey: “Jeff Novitzky has been 100% super supportive, everyone in the UFC was. Even the USADA testers that have come out throughout this camp were super supportive and were happy that their program worked to not just find cheaters, but protect innocent athletes, so it was good to have the support of USADA and the UFC. They pointed me to a good lawyer and stuff as well, and I couldn’t be happier with how the UFC handled it in general.”
Casey provided details of her exploration of her legal options, and while it seems like there isn’t an easy path to holding the TDLR accountable legally, it’s still something she is considering.
As Cortney notes in the interview, there’s no easy way to put this genie back in the bottle in the court of public opinion, either. This is an athlete who has lost out financially and has had to deal with abuse and alienation over something she didn’t do.
At the very least, the TDLR should release a public statement apologizing for their mistake and explain what steps they will take to make sure it never happens again. Sadly, it doesn’t seem as if they have any intention of doing so.