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With a favorable arbitration result, did UFC heavyweight Josh Barnett expose some of the flaws with USADA’s anti-doping efforts? MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes and retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes discuss.
Fowlkes: So it turns out Josh Barnett did not knowingly or willfully take the Ostarine that caused his most recent drug test failure. Such is the finding of an arbitrator, who agreed that the culprit was a tainted supplement.
But unlike other fighters who successfully argued a similar defense and accepted a short USADA suspension anyway, Barnett refused to agree with USADA’s assessment that he should take an 18-month ban, and the arbitrator sided with Barnett, giving him no punishment beyond a “reprimand.” All it cost him was a bunch of money and time.
Is that the right call, Danny? You’re responsible for what goes into your body, but if you can prove you were duped by a supplement maker who promised to boost your testosterone, is that enough? Is this how we’d like to see it work for everyone for going forward?
Also, is it just crazy to think that maybe fighters shouldn’t take supplements? Can you be a pro athlete without the powders and pills?
Downes: I personally think supplements are a scam. They’re a multi-billion dollar industry with little to no scientific evidence backing their claims. And it’s just not me, Ben. Turns out a lot of reputable sources think the same. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association thinks those fancy Omega-3 supplements you spend your money on will have no effect on your cognitive function. Oh, and don’t get me started on your probiotic yogurt fascination.
Regardless of my opinion on supplements and their effectiveness (or lack thereof), that’s not the real story here. The story is that Barnett had his career taken away from him for no good reason. He hasn’t competed since September 2016.
At 40, it’s unlikely the “Warmaster” was thinking of getting on the Donald Cerrone fight plan, but it’s safe to assume he’d have fought a couple times if the USADA ban wasn’t hanging over his head. He had other avenues of income to keep him afloat and fight the charge, but most MMA fighters aren’t so lucky.
Because of previous PED use, Barnett may not be the most sympathetic figure, but his situation highlights the problems with the modern MMA anti-doping situation. Barnett was able to clear his name because he had the funds and time.
Most fighters don’t have that luxury. Most don’t keep track of their supplement intake either. They either experiment with different products or take whatever they get for free which makes their chances for isolating a tainted supplement even more difficult. As a result, their name is stained and high and mighty members of the so-called media label them a “cheat” for perpetuity.
This is where I ask, “What have we gained from USADA?” Other than losing out on great fights and depriving fighters of their career with dubious charges, what have we accomplished? We like the idea of anti-doping in the abstract, but we don’t really care.
If Brock Lesnar fights Jon Jones, will you ignore it because Lesnar is a PED cheat? You’re going to watch Cro Cop vs. Roy Nelson regardless of which slow train to Croatia Mike Mazulli boards. Do you plan on throwing out your PRIDE DVDs any time soon? Of course you don’t. So why is USADA necessary?
Fowlkes: We have a finite number of options when it comes to drugs in sports.
1. We can do nothing at all, allowing PEDs to proliferate to the point that they are basically required in order to be competitive.
2. We can try our best, through random, unannounced testing, to catch some doping cheats and deter others.
3. We can do the bare minimum, and that poorly, so that while no one can say we’re “allowing” PEDs, neither are we at risk at ruining our own fun.
MMA has tried all three at various times and places, but the third choice seems to me the worst. Doing minimal testing means that you’ll inevitably let some cheaters prosper, but still occasionally catch a couple. That’s not a level playing field. It’s just us lying to ourselves.
Option number one is untenable in mainstream American sports culture. Cage fighting is already a niche sport on the fringe. If it becomes the wrecking ground of human lab experiments, it’ll only be further isolated. Regardless of the libertarian doping fantasies we may share with one another online, greenlighting rampant drug abuse among pro fighters is a non-starter.
So basically it’s a choice between really trying and only trying enough to keep people off your back. Given that choice, I’m in favor of really trying.
Could USADA do a lot better with issues like transparency? Yep. Should fighters have a voice in how this program will work? Definitely. Do we need a more fair and consistent way of dealing with cases where accidental contamination can be proven? Sure.
But that doesn’t mean we should chuck the entire concept of real drug testing and just give up. I think USADA has made the sport cleaner, both by catching cheaters and deterring others. It can get much, much better, and more fair, but it’s the closest thing this sport has ever had to a meaningful anti-doping effort.
Are you telling me that you think the cost has been too great? A few cancelled fights, a few fighters tarred by the contaminated supplements they took, is that too much?
Or do you just not think the goal is worth the trouble? Would you rather go back to barely testing and trying not to think too hard about where the champ’s new muscles and cardio came from?
Downes: As an abstract concept, I might be inclined to agree with you. In practice, however, all your high-minded notions don’t hold up. You speak of punishing “cheats” and broad ideas of justice like USADA contributes to the social contract. Where is that true?
You act like USADA is the only thing holding us back from a dystopian cage fighting future where “human lab experiments” are juiced up with venom like Bane from Batman. What makes you think that’s even a possibility? Your beloved PRIDE has essentially already given us that environment and you speak lovingly about it all the time. I’m not pro-PED, but the level of hysteria you’re putting out right now sounds like you’ve been watching too many Nancy Reagan PSAs.
In the current system, you’re guilty until proven innocent. Correction: you’re guilty unless you have thousands of dollars to prove your innocence and can afford to lose thousands of dollars more as you wait for the arbitration process to end. How many MMA fighters do you know that can afford that? It’s more than a “few cancelled fights.” You’re talking about people’s livelihoods.
I know we’re used to high levels of power asymmetry in MMA, but the current anti-doping system is too much even by that standard. Fighters have had it thrust upon them without any input. Ask yourself, “Who is USADA helping?” Is it the fighters, the sport, or your guilty conscience? Because if it’s only helping the third one, maybe it’s not so valuable after all.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.
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