Maria's Mystifying Mistake

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 /by
Maria Sharapova revealed that she received a letter from the ITF saying that she'd failed a drug test at this year's Australian Open. (AP)
Maria Sharapova revealed that she received a letter from the ITF saying that she'd failed a drug test at this year's Australian Open. (AP)

Was she retiring? Was she ill? Was she rolling out a new line of athlete-approved candy? Speculation grew frenzied as Maria Sharapova walked across what she would later call a “fairly ugly carpet” and stepped to the microphone in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom on Monday. But as she unfolded a white piece of paper and somberly thanked the press for showing up on short notice, few of us predicted what she would say next:

“I wanted to let you know that a few days ago, I received a letter from the ITF that I had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. I did fail the test, and I take full responsibility for it.”

This was a stunner on many levels. First, it has been been rare for any top tennis player to test positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Second, it’s even rarer for an athlete to make this type of announcement herself. Third, I hadn’t been aware of any widespread speculation or rumor in the past about Sharapova and PEDs. 

All of which should only remind us, if we needed any more reminding, that no athlete, and no sport, is above suspicion.

As it happens, Sharapova’s positive drug test comes at a delicate moment for tennis. The game began 2016 under a cloud of match-fixing allegations, and now it has seen one of its best and most bankable players permanently damaged, as well as possibly banned for a significant length of time. 

Yet when it comes to the game’s reputation, the Sharapova situation comes with a silver lining of sorts, even if it's hard to discern at the moment. When the match-fixing story played out in January, the most damning accusation wasn’t that there was criminal activity in tennis; it was that the game's officials looked the other way and chose to preserve its reputation rather than reveal its seedy side. That has also been a concern with tennis’s drug-testing system: How stringent could it be if no players of importance were ever caught? Were we expected to believe that tennis, alone among professional sports, was as pure as its Wimbledon whites? Now we’ve seen that the testing system can catch a star.

Of course, this star was caught because she made what she rightly called a “huge mistake.” Sharapova says she had been taking a drug that she knew as mildronate since 2006, when her “family doctor” prescribed it after she had suffered multiple bouts with the flu, received erratic EKG results, and was diagnosed with a “deficiency in magnesium” and “signs of diabetes." Sharapova said she was unaware that the drug, better known as meldonium, had been added to WADA’s banned substance list at the start of 2016, after the organization found “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.” 

Perhaps the only thing that could have been more stunning than Sharapova telling us about her failed drug test was her explanation for why it occurred. 

“I received an email," she said, "on December 22, 2015, from WADA about the changes happening to the banned list, and you can see prohibited items, and I didn’t click on that link.”

By that point, all Sharapova could do was insult the carpet.

When she walked back across it and out of the room, we were left with as many questions as answers. How did a woman who lives in the U.S. end up using meldonium, a drug manufactured in Latvia and Russia and not approved by the FDA? How did this famously disciplined athlete, or someone on her well-paid coaching and management staffs, fail to “click on that link”? (Meldonium had also been on WADA’s monitoring list since the start of 2015.) And most important: What punishment fits this particular crime?

The ITF announced that Sharapova will begin serving a provisional suspension on March 12, with the length of the ban to be determined. 

“I know with this I face consequences,” Sharapova said. “I don’t want to end my career this way, and I really hope I’m given another chance.” 

The consensus in the public-relations world was that she had made a strong first step in damage control by “getting ahead of the story,” admitting a modicum of guilt, and showing contrition. 

It was left to Sharapova’s lawyer, John Haggerty, to take the harder bargaining position in an interview with SI.com

“We are attempting to have a conversation with the ITF up front,” Haggerty said, “because we think there are a laundry list of extremely mitigating circumstances that once taken into consideration would result in dramatically reducing any sanction that they might want to impose on Maria.”

There’s little question that athletes in many sports have been using meldonium to increase endurance. Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova and two Ethiopian runners have also been suspended for it, and in random tests authorized by WADA last year, the Partnership for Clean Competition found that traces of meldonium showed up in 2.2 percent of athletes’ urine samples, a rate twice as high as any substance on the prohibited list.

It will be left to the ITF to determine the seriousness of Sharapova’s transgression. The fact that she took the drug for a decade before 2016 shouldn't be a factor. Whatever her motivations were, it wasn’t illegal; maybe meldonium should have been banned during that time, but it wasn’t. What does matter is that tennis players are responsible for whatever is found in their bodies, and that meldonium was found in Sharapova’s in 2016.

If the ITF determines that a doping violation is “intentional,” a four-year suspension is required. This means, essentially, that the player knew he or she was committing a violation, and did it anyway. If we believe Sharapova's press-conference story, that’s not what happened here. In the case of a “huge mistake” like hers, a two-year ban is mandated. After that, the player’s level of “fault or negligence” is assessed. Depending on what the ITF decides, the suspension can be cut in half, but no more. All of that taken together, Sharapova may be looking at a one-year ban.

The closest recent case to hers is one involving Marin Cilic from 2013. That spring he tested positive for a banned substance. He was initially suspended for 18 months, but had that number halved by the ITF on appeal, after successfully arguing that he had ingested the substance unknowingly in a glucose tablet, and that the drug hadn’t been active in his system during competition. That suspension was further reduced to four months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. At the time, while I believed Cilic’s story, I thought the nine-month suspension made sense.

Sharapova’s failure—not clicking on a link that was sent to her; not reading a list that every player must read—is more obvious than Cilic’s. I don’t think tennis would be well served by driving her from the sport; she’ll be 29 next month, and a long ban would be a career-ender. But I also don’t think the sport would be well served by allowing her to play again in 2016; missing the Olympics in particular will be a blow. Tennis doesn’t need to make an example of Sharapova, but it does need to show that once it has caught a star, it won’t let her get away.

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