The days of being innocent until proven guilty seem to be long gone.
This notion rings louder in a sport like MMA. When fighters get “flagged,” as U.S. Anti-Doping Agency likes to put it, many in the MMA community almost immediately peg the fighter a cheater. Is it fair? We’ve all heard some of the crazy stories fighters have told over the years regarding a failed drug test only find out later down the road that they willingly took the substance. But just because history has told us otherwise, does it mean we shouldn’t give anyone a fair trial to clear his or her name? Should all of the USADA’s flagged fighters be punished and/or viewed the same in the public’s eye?
The answer is easily no. They should not all be brushed with that same wide stroke and condemned as performance-enhancing drug users. If a fighter gets popped for a substance or a practice that is prohibited under USADA guidelines, did that fighter break the rules? Yes, clearly. However, that does not mean they all did so to the same magnitude.
A perfect example of this is the recent revelation of MMA legend B.J. Penn being removed from the upcoming UFC 199 card in Los Angeles because of a potential USADA violation. The violation in question is in regards to IV use by the former lightweight champ who is trying to make 145 pounds for just the second time in his long and historic career. Penn did not pop for testosterone-replacement therapy, EPO or any other anabolic steroid. He got pulled because he admitted to using an IV to rehydrate, a method which is banned under USADA’s drug-testing program.
Obviously there are reasons why IVs are banned by the USADA. Whether we agree with these reasons or not is an entirely different issue. In Penn’s case, the only reason why he got caught was because he disclosed his usage of the method to the USADA. He stated he knew IVs were banned, but that he did not know they were banned 365 days of the year.
If we can just sit back and look at this situation as it is and without bias, then is Penn’s case just as egregious as, say, the case of Chael Sonnen? Sonnen got caught using EPO and TRT during his tenure in the UFC. Is this on the same level as what Penn did?
What about Anderson Silva, who got popped using drostanolone, an anabolic steroid? Will anyone in their right mind consider what Penn did to be similar to what Silva did?
We don’t need to keep going down the list. If you’ve followed this sport closely over the years, then you know about these other drug-test failures. Penn, however, should not be part of this ever-growing list. He was unaware that IVs are banned even while out of competition. He’s not someone who used a supplement or a drug to unnaturally boost their performance. It is simply not the same.
Should Penn serve some kind punishment for being unaware of the rules? Yes. Should he serve the same suspension as someone who pops for an anabolic steroid or for blood doping? No, not even close.
But where the real damage lies is within the fans and some media outlets. Their perception of a fighter who many consider to be one of the best lightweights to ever strap on four-ounce gloves might be impacted. This is where the UFC and USADA can do a better job with situations like these.