Stricter punishments, longer suspensions a must in fight against steroids

A who's who of MMA fighters will be in action on Oct. 31. They won't be meeting in a cage, or a UFC Octagon or in any type of ring for that matter. They'll convene in an athletic commission conference room to appeal suspensions for anabolic steroids and drug use.

UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk tops the list of participants who will be on display that day. Sherk tested positive for nandrolone metabolite (a banned steroid) after his July 7 win over Hermes Franca in Sacramento, Calif.

Franca also tested positive that night, but has since admitted steroid use and accepted the state of California's maximum one-year suspension.

Sherk plans to have an elaborate defense and has high-profile Los Angeles attorney Howard L. Jacobs in his corner. Although Jacobs focuses on representing athletes in all types of disputes, he is best known for defending athletes charged with doping offenses. His clients have included Olympic sprinter Marion Jones and cyclist Floyd Landis.

USA Today recently praised Jacobs as someone who was "turning into drug testing's version of Johnnie Cochran," though his recent track record of losses in court says otherwise. ESPN.com tried to contact Jacobs in regard to Sherk's case but he declined to comment until after the hearing.

In December 2006, Jacobs defended Polish judo Olympic gold medalist Pawel Nastula in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Nastula tested positive for several banned substances, including nandrolone, on PRIDE's Oct. 21 card in Las Vegas.

Jacobs argued that Nastula's low steroid levels were consistent with unintentional ingestion and possible supplement contamination. The attorney went so far as to provide several possible scenarios, none of which proved acceptable to the commission. Nastula was found guilty of fighting under the influence of a banned substance and was suspended nine months and fined one-third of his purse.

Screening fighters for steroids began in 2000 when former Nevada commissioner Dr. Flip Homansky urged the state to lead the way in testing. Because other state commissions argued that performance-enhancing agents didn't play a role in unarmed combatants, Nevada stood alone in testing for years.

To date, 41 Nevada fighters have tested positive for illegal drugs, 28 of whom tested positive for anabolic steroids or masking agents. Half of that number were caught in 2007 alone.

California is one of few states to test all fighters on fight cards that take place in the state. Few jurisdictions perform any routine drug screens; even fewer test for anabolic steroids. Some cite the cost, which can approach $300, while others cite the lack of manpower to properly monitor the athletes.

The California State Athletic Commission, under the guidance of executive officer Armando Garcia, should prove to be a worthy opponent for both Sherk and Jacobs.

Since assuming the position in 2005, Garcia has pioneered several safety changes, including the institution of tougher drug policies. In just a six-month period, 43 fighters in California (33 in MMA, eight in boxing and two in kickboxing) have tested positive for anabolic steroids and/or controlled drugs.

A major issue that arises with testing is the timing of the test. Fighters who cheat know the exact day a positive drug screen will turn negative. Many hire costly experts to make certain they do not miss this window. California collects the urine specimen the evening of the weigh-in, while other states test after the fight.

Currently, no jurisdiction conducts unannounced testing, as is done in the Olympics and cycling's Tour de France. This would be the best way to catch drug abusers.

Are there reasonable excuses for anabolic steroid use?

When asking for leniency, numerous suspended fighters have argued they were unknowingly taking steroids.

Dr. Steven Sanders, a highly regarded orthopedic surgeon based in Las Vegas, has cared for countless mixed martial artists. Sanders, a fighters' advocate, nonetheless dismisses that argument.

"No doctor with a real practice is going to prescribe anabolic steroids," Sanders said. "Either the doctor is a charlatan or the drugs are given to the fighter with a nudge-nudge, a wink-wink a la Monty Python."

Sanders admits there are legally prescribed nonanabolic steroids used to treat injuries, but he confirms the ludicrousness of a physician using an anabolic agent in this day and age. The risks to the fighter are too high and can actually lead to further trauma.

Removing illegal drugs from the MMA world is almost as difficult as detecting the drugs in the first place.

Many believe fines are the answer. In California, a fighter is suspended for one year with a maximum allowable fine of $2,500 for the first steroid offense. Repeat offenders can have their license up for revocation.

Popular UFC fighter Stephan Bonnar was suspended nine months and fined $5,000 out of a $16,000 purse after testing positive for boldenone in Las Vegas on Aug. 26, 2006. And while Bonnar has hasn't tested positive since, it's hard to say whether the reprimands were tough enough.

In a July 31 interview with ESPN The Magazine, UFC president Dana White addressed the issue of appropriate punishment for fighters testing positive for banned substances: "They're not going to get paid. If you fight [your best] for me, you'll get paid. I'm going to wait and see if they pass their drug tests. If they don't, you're going to get what's in your contract and that's it."

The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) is one organization that tries to stay a step ahead of dopers. WADA was created in 1999 to promote, coordinate and monitor the fight against steroid use in sports. WADA has also instituted educational programs and out-of-competition testing. New drugs that avoid discovery are designed all the time, and WADA continually develops new methods of detection and assists jurisdictions that have no testing programs. WADA's testing protocol and sanctions for rule violations are laid out in the World Anti-Doping Code.

Commissions need to follow WADA's lead and do as thorough a job as possible in combating banned substances, even if it means policing the problem. But part of that responsibility should lie in licensee education. While ignorance is no excuse, the hope is that most fighters who test positive are merely misinformed regarding the harmful effects of these substances.

Although a "bad boy" image is expected and often condoned in MMA, an unfair advantage over another athlete is not. The only way to ensure an even playing field is to institute stricter punishments with longer suspensions, including a permanent ban for the second offense when it involves performance enhancement. Athletes guilty of offenses involving narcotics and stimulants should be forced to attend lengthy drug rehabilitation.

As more athletes test positive for illegal drugs, MMA credibility will quickly evaporate unless organizations promote drug-testing regulations utilizing the World Anti-Doping Code in every jurisdiction. All fighters must comply, and funding should be obtained through the state or the promoter.

Dr. Margaret Goodman, a former Nevada State Athletic Commission Medical Advisory Board chairman and chief ringside physician, contributes regularly to The Ring magazine.