Run for your lives! Sonnen’s steroid test has destroyed MMA! (or not)

Chael Sonnen's steroid test has brought about the apocalypse.

In the days since Chael Sonnen tested positive for an abnormally high level of testosterone, the mixed martial arts universe has seen no shortage of opinions on the topic of Sonnen’s (alleged) stupidity and the ugly stain steroids has left on the sport.

Most all of them express some level of disappointment about a high-level athlete cheating and tainting a great fight. And let’s not forget that the failed piss test has destroyed the possibility of an interesting rematch where, for the first time in years, we’d be wondering if Anderson Silva would finally lose his title as UFC middleweight champion and the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve been truly amazed by the amount of doom-and-gloom, end of the world sensationalism and unrealistic — or downright stupid — arguments being thrown out there about how Sonnen’s test result has harmed MMA and what the UFC needs to do to clamp down on performance enhancing drugs.

First, let’s start with those who are concerned about MMA entering the purview of the big, bad mainstream media. So what are we supposed to do here, not let the sport get more popular so we don’t have to worry about criticism? Anyone who’s basing their opinions on any sport or athlete by the ramblings of Jim Rome or any other overly-opinionated talking head is probably a raging moron.

People who already hate MMA – aka old school boxing fans – will always find a reason to hate it. Crusty old reporters that refuse to do their homework and instead whine and complain about things they don’t understand (example: certain Boston reporters after UFC 118) will continue to whine about MMA. Chael Sonnen’s back acne, or lack thereof, won’t change that, either.

That brings us to our next point: overestimating how much Sonnen has hurt the entire sport, and the UFC in particular. Sure, there might be some small, short-term economic damage from losing the interest in a Sonnen vs. Silva rematch. But remove yourself from your hardcore MMA fan bubble for just a moment, because I have news for you: the casual fans that you are so worried about losing probably don’t care all that much. An athlete tested positive for steroids? SAY IT AIN’T SO!

Here’s a conversation with a token casual MMA fan friend of mine conducted over instant message:

Me: Anyway, what’s your take on the Sonnen roids test? Is it a huge deal or does it put the sport in a worse position than other professional sport?

Him: Not at all — at least one NFL player went down this week for a positive steroids test.

Me: So even though MMA isn’t a more established sport, a person with reasonable intelligence knows that PEDs are a problem everywhere and wouldn’t destroy MMA more than the NFL, MLB, etc?

Him:  That is my opinion.

Before you jump back with disgust and assume I’m unconcerned with the abuse of performance enhancing drugs, I can promise you that isn’t the case. But the issue is a lot more complicated than it looks. If you haven’t watched the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, I highly recommend it. It’s an even-handed look at the use of steroids, the amount of research that’s been done on steroid use, and how we, as fans, overlook other performance enhancing chemicals and hardly ever complain or mention the lack of oversight in the fast-growing, unregulated area of nutritional supplements.

In the IM back-and-forth above, we did talk about the NFL. It’s the biggest money-making league in America with massive, muscle bound men that leap over buildings, out-run sports cars and deadlift livestock. For some reason, positive steroid tests barely generate much of a murmur among fans or media, probably because you’d be an idiot to think a significant number of those athletes aren’t hopped up on something, legal or not.

Whether you want to admit it or not, most fans don’t care half as much as you think about steroid use. To quote Deadspin.com founder Will Leitch from his book God Save the Fan: “Most fans, as much as they might like to throw plastic syringes at [Barry] Bonds and boo [Mark] McGwire during the rare times that he pops his head out of his mole hole, are much more pure about sports than paid sportswriters. We don’t fool ourselves into harboring illusions. We’d really rather not know, but if we do have to know, we’d prefer that our team just win.”

Think about it. Why do people so vehemently hate Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens? Because they cheated? It’s actually because they didn’t just stain themselves, they stained history. Bonds shattered Hank Aaron’s home run record, McGwire set the single-season home run record (until Bonds broke that), and Clemens established himself as possibly the greatest pitcher of the last 100 years. Baseball dorks are picky about their records. Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, and Manny Ramirez have quietly slid out of the steroids limelight, at least for now.

You might be thinking, “Hey, MMA isn’t as established as other sports. It can’t afford this kind of publicity.” There might be some truth to that, but stories of steroid use haven’t slowed the sport’s progress in other instances. Sean Sherk and Hermes Franca both tested positive after their title bout in UFC 73. Nate Marquardt failed a piss test after his lackluster UFC debut that most people have forgotten about. And Josh Barnett? He’s been caught twice but Strikeforce happily welcomed him with open arms with barely a peep out of the media about his track record, mainstream or not. On a recent Strikeforce conference call, nobody asked whether Barnett’s signing would sink the organization or damage their credibility. All he got was questions about how Barnett bolsters the heavyweight division and creates interesting matchups with Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, etc.

Still, I think we can all agree that cheating is a problem. It isn’t a good thing. So what can be done to crack down on PEDs in MMA? Some say that athletic commission testing isn’t enough and the UFC needs to reach into its deep pockets and fix the problem. Adopt Olympic-style drug testing … JUST DO SOMETHING!

While Olympic-style testing sounds like a solid idea, last time I checked, Olympic athletes still get busted on occasion, and their testing parameters haven’t stamped out the view that performance enhancers are alive and well every four years when they see something like Usain Bolt breaking the 100 meter sprinting record seemingly without effort.

And if the athletic commissions aren’t doing it, I don’t see why putting the UFC in charge of things makes the most sense. You can compare it to other sports leagues all you want, but at the end of the day, the UFC is a promotion that pays the fighters directly. This isn’t the NFL, NBA, or anything of the sort, with a league that can oversee testing separately from the teams that sign the player paychecks.

Back to our casual MMA fan representative:

Me: Do you think the UFC is responsible for doing additional drug testing beyond what’s conducted by the athletic commissions? (not including Texas, which doesn’t test)

Him:  Not until they are allowed to regulate all aspects of their sport, which they are not.

It wouldn’t be as transparent, but it would at least be consistent across the 50 states and internationally.

But there would be a conflict of interest.

Furthermore, none of the four major sports, to my knowledge, have adopted Olympic-style testing. You want to know a big reason why? Player unions. That’s right … the same unions many have been clamoring for to protect fighters from being exploited aren’t too fond of blood tests for their members to catch the cheats.

So to review, in light of Sonnen’s positive test, we’ve heard that we should be wary of having MMA in the spotlight of the mainstream media, how it’s a major stain on the sport itself, and how the UFC should take the bull by the horns and step up testing standards on its own.

But the fact is that MMA will continue to get mainstream media coverage – as it has for a few years now – and receive some praise and some criticism, just like every other sport and newsmaker. Steroids are a problem, but they’re a problem in every sport, and no sport, as a whole (including MMA), has suffered serious financial consequences because of a PED scandal. And even if the UFC conducts its own more stringent testing regimen, we’ll be left wondering whether they would willingly kill their own assets by outing users.

More than anything, remember that this is nothing more than yet another opinion on a topic that’s already been blown out of proportion. I’m no better or worse than the well-intentioned people above trying to keep everyone informed and aware. Actually there is one exception: this is one of the worst Op-Eds I’ve read in a long time. (Nice job, BleacherReport!) Do yourself a favor and don’t click on it unless you are entertained by pathetic rants meant to do nothing more than piss people off and generate page views. Seriously. It gave me a headache. It was that bad. A colleague who shall remain anonymous had this reaction: “I’m not reading the rest of that sh*t. That’s horrid in every way possible.”

(Special nod to bloodyelbow.com for tracking most of the linked stories above as this fiasco has unfolded)

2 thoughts on “Run for your lives! Sonnen’s steroid test has destroyed MMA! (or not)”

Leave a Comment