Wednesday, March 9, 2016

MARIA SHARAPOVA'S DOPING GAFFE: THE LOW HANGING FRUIT?

The timing of Maria Sharapova's positive drug test couldn't be worse.  In the midst of a maelstorm concerning match fixing allegations (which as yet have not been bolstered by any evidence) the authorities in the game are now faced with another challenge not only to the integrity of the sport, but more specifically their commitment to administer it in the best sporting interests.  I don't envy their predicament:  on the one hand, a decision to ban Maria Sharapova for breaking the rules for 25 days would send a message to the sponsors that have become predominant in the game, that the sporting integrity is in tact, and tennis has a zero tolerance policy on anything that calls into question the authenticity of its results.  On the other hand, the absence of one of the biggest stars of the game, who has been a boon to the financial participation of sponsors in the game, would be of benefit to almost nobody involved.


I think it's important to start with the purpose of anti-doping controls:  is it to catch people who don’t follow the rules, or people who are trying to cheat? I think it’s obviously the latter, and I think it’s just as obvious that Sharapova does not fall in that category.  After all, if she knew it was banned and was trying to cheat, would she admit to taking it for 10 years?  That's hardly a defense for someone who’s implied that she wasn’t cheating.
But there is a brewing temptation in the blogosphere, and I suspect/fear in the the halls of tennis authority, to ignore rational analysis and jump on this as an opportunity to insist that anti-doping in tennis is “working”. In fact, this proves the exact opposite: far from catching cheaters who are intentionally taking substances they know are illegal to gain a competitive advantage, this is at its core a technicality.  That’s not an excuse to escape a sanction or citation, but to me anyone insisting that she should be banned for a lengthy period is falling for an illusion about anti-doping in tennis hook, line and sinker.
I've never been convinced that tennis is serious about anti-doping, and based on this case, I think it should continue to be maligned.  It is extraordinarily inefficient at catching cheaters, but fantastically adept at catching people who simply fall-foul of the regulations.   Unfortunately for anyone who appreciates the difference between the letter of the law and the intent, those two are not mutually inclusive.  And this Sharapova farce, and others like it, are a perfect opportunity for tennis authorities to give the false impression that tennis is tough on doping and there is no actual doping going on in tennis. 
Baying for their pound of flesh, there are some who have deluded themselves into believing that they are taking the principled view:  but only if the principle is that the letter of the rules are more important than the intent. That’s a principle, but not one that makes the sport cleaner or makes a lot of sense.  The doping controls are not in place to catch people failing to comply with the controls, they are in place to catch cheaters. 
If Sharapova is not a cheat in the same sense that Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, or Marion Jones were, then her punishment should reflect that.  This would be the case even if Sharapova were taking this substance for a performance enhancement prior to January 1st of this year.  After all, prior to this year, she was within her rights to do so, and was breaking no rules, so again, whether she sought a performance enhancement during that period is irrelevant to the question of whether she was cheating in January.
The thing that concerns me about this is the speed with which her sponsors have abandoned her.  Nike is clearly hoping that the whole thing will be forgotten soon enough for her brand to continue to be a cash machine for them by only suspending their sponsorship, which could be said of Porsche's position on the matter.  Only TAG Heuer have taken the, in my opinion, rash decision to cut ties with her altogether.  But the way they're hurriedly backing away from the table, leads one to believe that tennis authorities, the IOC (who have bent over backwards in the past to get her into the Olympics), may have to calculate the cost of their retreat as the nascent rumblings of a stampede of money away from the game.  
I hope tennis bites the bullet, makes the right decision here and suspends Sharapova for 6 months.  There will be the Jennifer Capriati's of the world who will come up with some easy and equally illogical reason why an unfair exception has been made, but that would have no bearing on the facts of the case, which call for a reduced penalty.  But the tea leaves of tennis are shaped like dollar bills, and I fear that if you follow the money away from tennis, Sharapova could wind up with her hands and feet nailed to a racquet shaped cross.
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