Jon Wertheim addresses the swirling questions after Maria Sharapova's admission to the use of the banned substance meldonium on Monday.
So, predictably, the Maria Sharapova questions have been rolling in and piling up. I’m just going to address a few points that are coming up frequently. Tomorrow, we can do a non-pharmacology Mailbag.
• For the moment, let’s put aside morality and therapeutic use versus performance enhancing use. My overriding thought: this was careless bordering on reckless.
Let’s look at the fact pattern. For a decade, Sharapova has been taking a drug—regularly, per her lawyer—that is not approved by the FDA. She is worth tens of millions of dollars, not least because of her image predicated on grace and put-togetherness. She’s lived the majority of her life in the U.S., but as Bonnie Ford excellently put it, “competes for a country whose sports-science infrastructure is completely compromised.”
Given that backdrop and set of circumstances, it boggles the mind that she wouldn’t be extraordinarily vigilant about the WADA banned list. Anyone with Internet access can find within a few keystrokes. This is hardly cloak-and-dagger stuff. Everyone knows that the list changes from to year. Inevitably, after the recent Russian doping scandal, WADA was going to heavily scrutinize drugs popular among Russian and Eastern European athletes (mildronate is Latvian in origin). That Sharapova—who, again, usually runs a buttoned-up operation—was so careless and/or indifferent and/or arrogant is just remarkable.
Again, this part isn’t about guilt or innocence. If Sharapova had been using this drug for performance-enhancing purposes, she would have stopped. If it were therapeutic purposes, she could have requested a (therapeutic use exemption) TUE. That she did neither speaks to a remarkable error of omission.
• We’re in no position to judge intent here. She claims this drug was consumed to deal with low magnesium levels and a troubling EKG reading and family history of diabetes. No sooner did Sharapova step to the podium and name the drug, meldonium, did I start receiving emails questioning her claims. (One prominent sports science expert warned me, “Not in a million years would she be taking that to stave off diabetes. That's ridiculous.”) She and her lawyers will make her case before a tribunal. In a strict liability world, this issue of intent will only be relevant for the sentencing phase.
• I’m not sure that Sharapova’s assertion that she’s “been taking this drug since 2006” helps her cause. Especially after the manufacturer has been claiming that a normal treatment for medical use is four to six weeks. Sharapova claims this goes to show her lack of intent. You could just as easily suspect that it simply took those 10 years for the testing to catch up.
• I share your concerns about the process. So Sharapova tests positive for a banned substance and is alerted to the result. And then, apparently, the ITF gives her time to embark on a public relations campaign whereby she can rent a hotel ballroom (ugly carpet and all) and get ahead of the narrative? The WTA can craft a statement and give employees and former players’ talking points. I’d be curious to know if all players are given this opportunity and afforded this courtesy. As one of you wrote, “If the ITF had announced suspension first, she'd have been even more on the defensive.”
• Yes, I was surprised that Nike, in particular, suspended its relationship with Sharapova. As the public was still deciding how harshly or charitably to judge Sharapova, when her endorser didn’t wait until dinner before distancing itself, it sent an emphatic message. Judging from social media, public sentiment really turned against Sharapova after this. Especially since, in the past, Nike has been criticized for sticking with its scandal-embroiled athletes for too long. (Then again, maybe this regrettable history accounted for Nike’s running away within hours.)
• Let’s leave other players and athletes out of this. This is about Sharapova. She was the one who failed the test.
• I’ve seen the word “cornered” used to describe Sharapova and that’s not inaccurate. Again, in a strict liability world, once she failed the test, her options were limited. Still, some credit is owed to her for standing in front of a podium, taking ownership and taking questions. She didn’t throw anyone on her team under the proverbial bus. She didn’t complain about the system or use words like “witch hunt.” Given the way other athletes have reacted in similar situations, Sharapova’s accountability Monday was commendable. It’s also heartening that she intends to serve time and continue playing, rather than see a Hall of Fame career end on such an unpleasant note.
• A lot of you have essentially asked how to feel about this. At some level it’s personal and redounds to your own values. How much validity to you put in Sharapova’s explanation? (She and her lawyer are essentially saying that she used these drugs simply to get to a baseline—no pun intended—and not exceed it.) How deeply offended are you by performance enhancing drugs? I also think you’re entitled to reserve judgment. Sharapova will serve her suspension and perhaps you want to wait till her return to gauge how you feel.
• Overall, not a good look for Sharapova and not a good look for tennis. But in a perverse way, this should inspire some confidence. The system worked. Any conspiracy theories about tours covering for stars were just splintered. This is as big a star as you’ll get—the top earning female athlete—and she was popped. She can now avail herself to a process, including the right to an appeal, make the case that there were mitigating circumstances and, in turn, receive a mitigated sentence.
• We have a match-fixing scandal, the passing of the great Bud Collins, and now the news that Maria Sharapova tested positive for a banned substance. And I ask: can tennis “play a let” on 2016?