"Juan Manuel Marquez delayed performance enhancing drug testing so he could be dirty while Timothy Bradley was clean!" (Only they started testing via separate drug-testing organizations at almost exactly the same time.) "The Nevada State Athletic Commission hasn't begun testing everyone yet!" (When it actually had.) "Brandon Rios is being tested while Manny Pacquiao is not!" (Except most evidence points to both having been tested.)
All of these performance-enhancing drug mini-scandals and more have been filled with half-truths and distortions. There's been a great deal of reporting and opining on performance enhancing drugs in boxing in the last few weeks/months, and there's more to come; Friday night on HBO's "The Fight Game" we'll hear from Dr. Margaret Goodman, head of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, and you'll hear from her below, too, because she was kind enough to answer a few questions for this piece. All the reporting and opining has focused most especially on the drug testing for Bradley-Marquez, and, lately, the drug testing for Pacquiao-Rios, but often it has muddied the waters more than it has cleared them.
With all the inflamed tensions surrounding PEDs, it can be hard to follow what's happening, who's lying and what's true. This is one man's attempt to sort out what he can. And it's a snapshot. I wouldn't be surprised if something I've said below is contradicted later as more information emerges.
Let's start with this Nevada State Athletic Commission testing vs. VADA vs. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency debate. We weighed in a little here after Kelsey McCarson's reporting on what the Nevada commission did, coming down on the side of "better in some ways than VADA, not others." But we can break it down further.
On expansiveness of testing, I think VADA is in the lead. They're doing year-round random testing for some boxers, although according to the camp of Floyd Mayweather, he's employing USADA for year-round random testing of fighters in his promotional stable. VADA also uses Carbon Isotope Ratio testing on every sample, Goodman told me. "Yes, every time," she said via e-mail. "We also conduct urine EPO [erthropoyetin] on all samples and conduct hGH [Human Growth Hormone] on every blood screen. We follow blood counts as well." USADA uses CIR "regularly" and "strategically," while NSAC used it on half of the occasions for Bradley-Marquez but not on every sample. Whether you can achieve the same or similar results without using CIR on every sample — say, if an athlete knows that CIR is being used some of the time, will it still have the desired deterrent effect? — is a question I'll leave to others, but on mere strictness, VADA is ahead of USADA and NSAC here. NSAC made use of biological passport for Bradley-Marquez (the first time in boxing, to the knowledge of NSAC's Keith Kizer), and while there are still questions about how effective it is, it still strikes me as their one edge over the field.
On reporting procedures and general openness, things get a little closer. In the past, USADA has released the most extensive statistics to the public, albeit situationally. On the other hand they came under fire over when they notified the New York commission about Erik Morales' test results last year, and USADA is in my experience less open with the boxing media than the other two testing bodies. VADA came under similar fire from Kizer with the notification procedures for Lamont Peterson's test results, but all sides agree that VADA has since corrected the problem and there's been no incident reported since. VADA doesn't do the kind of public notice of test results that USADA has done, but here's what Goodman said when I asked her about that: "All VADA results are announced to the appropriate commissions, fighter, the ABC [Association of Boxing Commissions], and the promoter(s). Our role is to facilitate testing. We don't adjudicate results. It is up to the commissions, the ABC, fighter, promoter to release results. When a fighter enrolls and is eligible for testing they are listed on the site, and when they successfully complete the program, that is also listed. If a fighter tests positive, they are removed from the site. We follow that policy. Most important is that any athlete undergoing our program or any other testing program have full access to the policies and procedures." So, in a roundabout way, the public can learn about a failed test, which is better than no disclosure at all. (There is one standout issue as it pertains to VADA's openness, which we'll get to in a little while.) Since the Marquez-Bradley testing has been completed, Kizer has answered specific questions about results and testing procedures used, but he did not do so beforehand. Maybe he has a point in his stance that he didn't want to broadcast to the fighters what was being used or not, but I tend to disagree with that call, and at any rate, it means they get docked a little bit compared to the others here.
On enforcement is where the NSAC testing has a big edge. We've seen states be reluctant to act on the test results from VADA or USADA alone, and maybe that can be corrected. But right now, Top Rank's Bob Arum had a point about wanting to use state commissions because of who has the regulatory authority chain of custody and similar issues. If the states do the testing, they can act to censure a fighter; if they don't do the testing, as of this moment, it gets more difficult. As Goodman notes above, VADA isn't even in the enforcement game (and, I'd add, neither is USADA).
Some Of The Kerfuffles
For whatever reason, at least from where I'm sitting, the people who advocate the most loudly for VADA — Thomas Hauser, Gabe Montoya, Conte — have a tendency to attack anyone who doesn't buy in to VADA absolutely. That, in turn, leads to people being disinclined to support VADA, because that's just how boxing people work. "You're telling me I should like X fighter or Y organization?" average boxing person says. "WELL SCREW ALL OF THEM!" And the more obnoxious and/or persistent someone is, the more the average boxing person rebels. It doesn't matter if VADA is doing good things — boxing people rally against the organization touted BECAUSE it is touted, not based on whether it deserves it.
And I'll admit some of it rubs me the wrong way, too, especially when it leads to bad info getting out there. Here are some of the kerfuffles, then:
Take this recent Hauser piece. Hauser is a consultant for HBO. In the piece he calls out every Al Haymon fighter who doesn't test with VADA. Notably, everyone he calls out fights on HBO rival Showtime. Notably, the Haymon fighter who does test with VADA is fighting on HBO next: Edwin Rodriguez. I personally think it would be good if all Haymon fighters tested with VADA, but I'd also think it would be good if any boxer did any advanced testing that he isn't doing already. But this kind of piece is a bad look for Hauser because of the HBO connection and it makes it harder for some people to trust the motive behind the message.
That said, Hauser has at times criticized HBO fighters over not using VADA, too — at times, bordering on flat-out accusing them of 'roiding — so I'm not saying he's all bad on this count, only how it looks. But even when he does criticize HBO fighters there are problems. Here's one in another Hauser piece, which complains of Bradley using VADA and NSAC testing but Marquez only using NSAC testing: "Moreover, the NSAC tests began so late (August 6th) that a fighter, hypothetically, would have been able to use PEDs and then, after benefiting from their use, stop 'juicing' in time to get the illegal drugs out of his system before testing began." I asked Goodman when VADA testing began, and she answered, "Bradley re-enrolled in VADA August 8th." (Bradley had enrolled in VADA testing for his March bout against Ruslan Provodnikov as well.) When I replied, "My interest was in when the first samples were collected, but I at least now know that they were not collected prior to Aug. 8," she did not correct me in a brief follow-up e-mail. (It must be noted that she also said in the earlier e-mail that she was very tied up with other matters.) Anyway, based on those timetables, if Marquez could have stopped "'juicing' in time to get the illegal drugs out of his system before testing began," why couldn't Bradley have done the same?
We previously addressed another bit of erroneous reporting about when NSAC testing began.
That said, it's not as if there hasn't been some ire and innuendo directed at VADA of late, too. Alex Ariza, working with Rios, relayed this week how he was told by a VADA representative that Pacquiao wouldn't be tested for a while, even though Rios had already been tested. Goodman said Pacquiao has already been tested, though, as did promoter Top Rank. It's possible — I'd say likely — that the person who was speaking out at the Rios camp (who apparently was not a VADA employee but was at least there with the VADA-contracted collection agency) was speaking out of school, and combined with supicions stemming from how the rabid "report everything Pacquiao does" press in the Philippines had not reported yet that he had tested, Ariza's remarks kind of caught Twitter by storm and took hold even after the denials of Goodman and Top Rank. But at this point it's the word of one person on one oddly edited video plus some assumptions vs. the word of the person who runs VADA and the promoters of both Rios and Pacquiao, so until some actually damning piece of evidence comes forward, I'm believing the second crew.
Now, it must be said that my interactions with two of the three VADA advocates I mentioned above have been unpleasant, so maybe I'm noticing more of what they're doing that I disagree with. On the other hand I've had zero unpleasant interactions with Hauser, so at least in his case I can honestly say it's that I find the substance of some of his assertions and reporting troublesome.
And here's where we give a special section to Conte.
Conte And VADA
I want to make perfectly clear that I think highly of Goodman, and I think highly of VADA's mission. I was impressed by what she had to say here and like that she's aware that what she's doing is a means to an end for the larger fight against PEDs. I don't have any reason to doubt her integrity, which she's established over a long career of campaigning for fighter safety.
But Conte's been a thorn in her side and I think she's helped dig it in there a little bit with how she's handled public discussion of what he has and hasn't done for VADA.
Goodman had previously maintained that, despite Conte claiming to have helped create VADA, he has had no role with the organization, official or unofficial, as some have claimed to the contrary. At no point when being asked about what Conte has done for VADA did she ever reveal that he had donated money to the company and actively sponsored testing for fighters. It took one of those fighters, Nonito Donaire, saying that Conte had paid for his testing for Conte to "clarify" that he had done so.
I asked Goodman about all this, and stated that it was for an opinion piece. Here's my question, with some notes on my own opinion on the matter, followed by her answer:
Q: Besides paying for testing for some of his clients, has Victor Conte had any other financial relationship with VADA? Has he provided money for anything besides that sponsored testing? Does he provide direction at all? (I know you've been 'round and 'round on the Conte question a few times, but I just wanted to clarify because the last time we quoted you as saying VADA had "no affiliation" with Conte and subsequently he's said that he pays for testing for some of his fighters, which some might consider an "affiliation." I want to make sure I know if he has any other previously undisclosed role with VADA.) Given Mr. Conte's past, are there mechanisms in place to make sure that his payment for that sponsorship doesn't influence what VADA does in the event of a positive? And given Mr. Conte's allegations against any number of strength and conditioning trainers, what concerns should those trainers have or not have about enlisting in the VADA program in instances where Mr. Conte is sponsoring that testing?
A: Just because somebody may donate to VADA does not mean that they have any affiliation or relationship–financial or otherwise–with our organization. Only the board, our officers, legal counsel and scientific advisor have any input regarding the day-to-day workings of the program. Mr. Conte has no financial relationship, no disclosed or undisclosed role, and absolutely no ability to influence anything that goes on in VADA. Promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions have also funded testing, and fighters have funded testing for themselves and their opponent. None has any affiliation with VADA operations. Just because someone contributes to a charity like the American Cancer Society or a university scholarship fund, doesn't mean that they're "affiliated" with the organization.
And here's how I replied to that answer: I do note that you did not answer at least one of the questions about Mr. Conte ("Has he provided money for anything besides that sponsored testing?"), but the ones you did answer were helpful. My inclination is to think that more so than the usual questions about promoters paying for testing — everyone has some financial interest in whether a fight happens or doesn't happen, be it the promoters or the commissions or the fighters — Mr. Conte's role is problematic. His long-ago history and even his recent history are such that there's a potential element of "fox hiring the guards to protect the henhouse" to it, but you're also right in my view that mere contributions do not equal an "association." That said, Mr. Conte's previously undisclosed role in paying for testing strikes me as an error of omission, at least — a false impression might have been created, even inadvertently, about the extent of Mr. Conte's involvement.
As I mentioned, Goodman was not available for a ton of follow-ups. If she becomes free and cares to respond to that, I'll publish her replies.
Here's what I mean by Conte's "recent history," and part of this works to VADA's favor, actually. On the "fox hiring the guards to protect the henhouse" question, VADA has dinged one Conte-affiliated fighter, Berto, already. That, to me, speaks well of the credibility of the organization, to have busted a fighter associated with a man who has been a vocal VADA booster (and a cash booster, too). I trust Goodman until she gives me a reason not to.
But that Conte has had two athletes he's been associated with — Berto and a Major League Baseball player, Marlon Byrd — test positive in his rebirth as a Frank Abagnale/"Catch Me If You Can" character makes him a troubling figure to be doing anything for an organization devoted to cleaning up the sport. It's very possible that Conte's explanations about why it wasn't his fault those athletes were dinged are true, by the way. But if Abagnale, while working for the FBI, bounced a couple checks, do you think he'd get the benefit of the doubt for whatever explanations he provided? So long as you can say the names "Conte" and "VADA" in the same sentence, even if he has no title with the organization, there will be people who will be reluctant to embrace VADA.
And that goes beyond just fans and into boxing people who might make use of VADA's services. If you're Memo Heredia or Ariza and you know that Conte — who has accused you of helping fighters juice — has paid for the testing involving one of your fighters, why wouldn't you be worried about whether something funny might happen on the other end? It's easy for me to say I trust Goodman until she gives me a reason not to. I'm not the one whose fighter is being tested thanks to the financial backing of a man who despises me and/or calls me a cheat.
I do think some of these things could be better than they are, for a variety of reasons. I think the advent of VADA, the use of USADA and the innovation for Bradley-Marquez of NSAC testing is better, however, than the alternative of doing nothing. I think they're all playing a positive role. The only questions are about how much of one.