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Tuesday, December 9
Updated: February 5, 4:16 PM ET
USTAF puts spin on drug war

By Jeff Hollobaugh
Special to ESPN.com

Years ago I studied public relations. My instructor, a guy named George Robeck, knew his stuff, and taught by using real-life case histories. He showed us that there is good news and bad news, but if you handled the PR side of it well, it could be nearly all good. He would love Craig Masback.

Masback, the CEO of USA Track and Field, has taken one of the biggest scandals the sport has seen, the THG/Balco Labs drug investigation, and turned it into an opportunity to position USATF as the lead fighter in the war against performance-enhancing drugs.

This is the same USATF that the USOC and WADA accuse of going to great lengths to conceal its deliberations on the Jerome Young case. Apparently popped for nandralone (a steroid) prior to the Sydney Olympics, Young was cleared by USATF in time to help our guys win a gold medal in the 1,600-meter relay.

This is the same USATF that time and again has been accused of being soft on athletes who have been implicated as drug users.

Now Masback has used the recent national convention of the organization to rally support around a new "zero-tolerance" measure that is probably the toughest anti-drug policy that any major sports organization has ever adopted. A few years ago, I suspect the USATF board would have shied away from such a step, calling it draconian.

According to the plan, first-time steroid abusers would earn a lifetime ban. They would also have to pay fines up to $100,000. Their coaches would get similar penalties.

The USATF convention goers, as well as the U.S. Track Coaches Association, were all for it. Even the Athletes Advisory Committee (the closest thing to a labor union athletes have) has unanimously backed the plan. The AAC, using twisted English, used its resolution to throw a challenge to the world: "The AAC invites the world and the IAAF to impose the first-time steroid offense to be a lifetime ban."

And therein lies the rub.

The world won't follow USATF's lead. It can't. In far too many countries, including the United States, such a penalty would not hold up in court. There might be limited successful application of the rule, but it would be prohibitively costly both in time and money. It's not a practical solution to the doping problem. It is, however, an excellent solution to USATF's public relations problem.

Masback's organization has been heavily criticized for sheltering its own athletes from drug charges and has not been cooperative with the IAAF (usually saying it couldn't divulge information on drug cases because of restrictions placed on it by U.S. law). So it's ironic that USATF now takes a stance that would clearly be in violation of U.S. law. The Amateur Sports Act, for one, prohibits USATF from adopting a policy tougher than the IAAF's.

That's why USATF's zero-tolerance drug policy has a clause tacked on to it that says it won't take effect until the IAAF follows suit.

And that's why Masback got everyone in USATF to John Hancock the policy: It's fiction. It will never happen. But it sends a well-timed message: USATF would be the hammer on drugs if it could, but it's being held back by the IAAF, IOC, USOC, WADA and every other organization that is better known by its initials than its name.

It's PR genius, and the media is lapping it up. Suddenly, USATF is in control of the situation. Masback has gone on the offensive against the other pro sports, pointing out how wussy-like their drug penalties are. The sport is getting big headlines, and it all looks great for USATF. After years of being on the defensive against the USOC and WADA, it's all attack.

It's hard to predict how long the good PR buzz will last before people realize that nothing has really changed. And even when they do realize that Masback's policy went nowhere, it would take a real cynic -- or one of my twisted readers -- to figure that that was the idea all along. Most of the public, and the media, will blame the lack of progress on the IAAF, as Masback will.

The onus is suddenly on the IAAF to change its rules to allow the United States to apply tougher penalties than the rest of the world. The irony is that the IAAF has been frustrated for years in its attempts to get the United States to simply apply the penalties that are already in place.

Jeff Hollobaugh, former managing editor of Track and Field News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached by e-mail at michtrack@aol.com.

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