Georges St-Pierre (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)Drug Testing in MMA: Taking a Clean Approach to PED Discussion Aidan O'Connor January 23, 2014 Spotlight After more than a decade on top of the MMA world, UFC President Dana White is all too familiar with the odd criticism from a disgruntled former employee. When that fighter was the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view draw as little as three months ago, however, the promotion’s president has the right to be taken aback. Over the last week, which included a strong UFC Fight Night 35, the public back-and-forth between White and former welterweight kingpin Georges St-Pierre has dominated the sport’s media headlines. The reason behind the passive animosity appears to be a disagreement on attitudes toward drug testing in mixed martial arts. Although it might not be the sole cause behind St-Pierre’s self-imposed hiatus, this dispute has quickly come to define a relationship that appeared idyllic for so long. GSP had sought out the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) to conduct additional drug testing for both himself and opponent Johny Hendricks ahead of UFC 167. He is convinced VADA’s methods are the most thorough and effective. In the midst of debate between St-Pierre and Hendricks over VADA’s viability as an alternative or supplement to the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s own procedures, White branded the conflict “stupid.” White perceived the move as a distraction from the title fight and a possible slight against the UFC’s current efforts to deter and expose performance-enhancing drug users in the sport. St-Pierre saw things differently, interpreting White’s comments as a lack of support from his employer as the former champion sought to enhance the sport’s integrity. “I tried to change things, and unfortunately, maybe for money reasons, maybe for image, they were not ready to do that…I tried to [bring about] change in a very diplomatic way and it didn’t work, so it’s unfortunate,” St-Pierre was quoted as saying. Between cryptic comments and requests to discuss the matter “man-to-man,” confusion over drug testing in the UFC among some fans has reached new heights, prompting various questions. What are the UFC’s existing drug testing measures? Why does GSP feel the need to contract an alternative testing body? Is VADA really superior to the current status quo? Speculation on a topic as taboo in professional sports as PEDs could prove a significant problem for the UFC and MMA. The potential damage from drug-abuse exposure in sport is already well-documented in the case of Major League Baseball, where the sudden impact of drug-abuse exposure created a serious public-relations disaster for America’s national pastime. Although the UFC is nowhere near such a precarious situation, PR foresight suggests this is one risk that should be extinguished sooner than later. Drug-testing policies in the sport’s flagship promotion should be as transparent as possible, without encroaching on the private lives of UFC fighters. Putting on my fantastical executive suit for this scenario, I suggest a possible crisis-communications strategy for the UFC. Doing so will hopefully define the information required to resolve the turbulent fallout between White and St-Pierre. Immediate transparency is key to avoiding a serious PR disaster. Gaps of knowledge can be filled with theories that very easily become misconstrued as truth. A successful counter-strategy must offer insight and consistency across several different platforms. For the most comprehensive account of drug-testing policy, a free e-book download combines detailed information with an attractive format. It is also easy to access across desktop and mobile devices. Contrary to a formal press release, the material is passed straight to the sport’s fan base, creating an impression of sincerity and a genuine desire to share information with the public. This guide’s content should achieve the following: Define WADA In the heat of public debate between GSP, White and Hendricks, the false perception of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) being a rival body to VADA created confusion and skepticism over St-Pierre’s affiliation with the latter. In reality, WADA is as an organization that issues drug-testing protocol. VADA, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA, the U.S. Olympic testing body) and independent state athletic commission testing adopt these guidelines. The format is similar to the UFC working under the Unified Rules of MMA. The promotion actively enforces these rules, but has no bearing on their design. Define VADA The Voluntary Anti-Doping Association is an active testing body. In the case of GSP, VADA is being employed as an additional process to the testing authorized and conducted by state athletic commissions and the UFC. It is not being used as an alternative. Other MMA journalists educated on the subject praise VADA for two distinct qualities: carbon isotope-based testing, regarded as being more effective at detecting substance misuse, and the completely random testing times that negate a fighter’s ability to schedule substance misuse around certain dates. Define the Testing Process As a counter-argument against calls for the UFC to apply VADA testing for all its fights, which is an expensive concession, the promotion must offer a comprehensive outline of the existing drug-test process. This entails detailing the regularity of testing, explaining how one is physically tested, clarifying what happens to the sample, spelling out how samples are analyzed and telling readers how the results are handled. Several notable drug-test failures and GSP’s need to “make a point” have brought the UFC’s existing policy into question. A candid approach to answering those queries will help UFC executives justify why they consider VADA testing unnecessary. Taking the Nevada State Athletic Commission as the flagship for state commission drug testing, the UFC should publicize the diverse measures already in place. Hemoglobin and hematocrit tests check blood for high red blood cell percentages, an indicator of PED usage. Standard urine tests expose anabolic steroid use, elevated testosterone ratios, masking agents and diuretics. NSAC’s agreement with the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, to conduct free brain trauma and neurological health testing for competitors also exhibits an appreciation for the welfare of mixed martial artists that goes beyond the immediate fight. Define the Repercussions White has listed the various forms of punishment for test failure in several post-fight scrums. Limiting his pitch to the sport’s elite media journalists, however, does not acknowledge the potential reach of negative publicity, which can transcend the sport and penetrate mainstream news. Lorenzo Fertitta, a less public executive stakeholder in the UFC, recently commented on the situation, perhaps a sign of increasing concern regarding the impact of the story. “We’ve made it clear, through presentations at various athletic commissions, that we advocate for the most rigorous drug testing possible…We’ve actually advocated for harsher penalties for PEDs,” Fertitta explained. In reality, there are few sporting organizations that go to the lengths the UFC does to crack down on doping. Between withdrawn win bonuses, fight bonuses and UFC-imposed suspensions, a fighter’s decision to use PEDs can cost him or her hundreds of thousands of dollars. Incredibly, select MMA athletes still try to cheat the system. As long as they continue to do so, accusations of a passive approach by the UFC towards doping will persist. State athletic commissions impose their own sanctions on guilty competitors who test positive. Suspensions from active competition, subsequent indirect financial loss, stricter future testing and trouble securing a fight license going forward all exist to dissuade athletes from compromising the integrity of the sport and the commission overseeing it. The guide would also benefit from outlining the repercussions incurred as a public figure. Negative PR through major news stories will damage a fighter’s credibility, adversely affecting potential sponsorships, merchandise sales and other efforts to make a living based on name recognition. The Verdict To quickly and effectively nullify negative speculation on its drug-testing policy, the UFC must transcend its obligations as a private company, using an e-book or similar tool. Full public disclosure is essential to silencing critics and educating the sport’s fan base. In turn, knowledgeable fans become a sustainable means of intelligently defending the promotion and, to a lesser extent, the sport from criticisms of PED abuse. Media scrums, interviews and press releases should be a means to an end. The UFC should use these channels to promote the e-book, which is more accessible and less time sensitive. And finally, what of Georges St-Pierre? The white knight in this story to some, an instigator to others. A picture is worth a thousand words, and if UFC executives and their former welterweight champion can organically reconcile, it will reverse a great deal of the damage made by St-Pierre’s comments. If this is not possible, the UFC must move on and continue to present its brand and the sport in the best way possible, by using the resources it has that aren’t on hiatus.