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Commission's handling of Sonnen appeal brings more questions


In the history books the ancient Greeks are always getting together one tribunal or another to solve some major crisis. As the California State Athletic Commission demonstrated on Thursday afternoon, that tradition is still alive in our culture. Only now instead of gathering our wisest and most influential citizens, we pretty much just settle for whoever isn't stuck at the airport that day.

The CSAC met in Sacramento to discuss a number of issues this week, including how to handle the licensing of MMA gyms, whether or not to rule for a "no contest" in a couple small-time bouts and which commission members had flights to catch later in the day.

They even found time for some self-congratulatory lecturing, and of course there was the introduction of CSAC executive officer George Dodd's wife, who, we were told, is a real gem for putting up with him. How nice.

But the spotlight on Thursday was squarely on UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen. He was there to appeal his year-long suspension for admittedly injecting testosterone prior to his bout with middleweight champion Anderson Silva at UFC 117.

At issue was not whether Sonnen was guilty of artificially increasing his testosterone levels, or even whether he had a legitimate medical reason to inject testosterone. All that was established by numerous documents and the testimony of Sonnen's doctor, Mark Czarnecki (quick tip for the M.D.'s out there: when you testify on behalf of your pro athlete client, maybe don't show up in a T-shirt and mumble your way through the cross-examination).

According to Sonnen and his lawyers, he suffers from hypogonadism, a condition that results in low testosterone levels, causing fatigue and "mental fogging." In other words, stuff that makes it tough to fight other people for a living, making it borderline amazing that Sonnen had such a successful MMA career before beginning the testosterone injections in 2008.

But the CSAC seemed only partially interested in the question of whether Sonnen should or could shoot testosterone just days before a UFC championship bout. Sure, they asked some questions that provoked uncomfortable disclosures from Sonnen about when he went through puberty (late) and sifted through his medical records, but by the end the commission seemed content to accept the hypogonadism explanation.

What this was about, it seemed, was what forms Sonnen had filled out, who he told and when. It was an issue of proper procedure and protocol, and when it was all over the commission decided in a 3-1 vote that Sonnen hadn't followed it. Sort of.

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See, Sonnen definitely told some people that he was taking testosterone, among them CSAC commissioner George Dodd. He claimed to have told others, such as Nevada State Athletic Commissioner Keith Kizer, who denies having any such conversation.

But after bungling through a hearing during which the members of the commission seemed at times unsure of their own procedures, they voted to uphold Sonnen's $2,500 fine, but cut his year-long suspension to six months.

Which I suppose means that he's half-guilty of illegally using PEDs. Or maybe totally guilty, but hey, he did hire some lawyers and come all the way to Sacramento, so that has to count for something.

In any event, one thing that seemed just as uncertain at the end as it was at the beginning is exactly what's supposed to happen the next time Sonnen fights.

His suspension is up in March, and he'll presumably still be suffering from hypogonadism by then. And since his physician declared it unsafe for him to compete with such dangerously low testosterone levels, he'll presumably still need that injection. He'll just need to get the right emails from the right people who have the right .gov email addresses first.

Which leads one to wonder, was Sonnen branded a cheater after the biggest fight of his life all because of a procedural error? Is what he did perfectly legal as long as he has the right forms on file?

There, the CSAC didn't have many answers. Not for Sonnen, nor for the public. The issue of how to deal with this must be handled "carefully," according to Dr. Van Lemons of the CSAC. He even encouraged the commission to be "proactive" in preparing for such cases, so that they might have a ruling for this and "every medical condition."

We just don't know what that ruling is or who it will effect or how. All we know is that if you show up and make a halfway convincing case, the commission will throw its hands up and cut your suspension in half.

As for how to heal your damaged reputation or how to ensure that you don't have to deal with it your next time out, well, there the commission can't help you. They'd like to, but these meetings drag on for so long and there are planes to catch. You know how it is.