Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On Boxing and Performance Enhancing Drugs

First, some stipulations:

1. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have infiltrated a host of major sports. Boxing is just one of them.

2. Unlike other sports such as cycling, track and field and baseball, boxing has not universally addressed its PED problem. 

3. PEDs have been involved in boxing for a generation, if not longer.

4. Professional athletes have always looked to gain edges. If steroids were commonly available in the 1950s, you can bet that a number of boxers would have used them.

5. It is the responsibility of governing bodies to restrict and regulate PEDs and other practices that can create an unnatural advantage for a participant/team.  Should these bodies fail to enforce the strictest standards of fair play, they are negligent in their duties of ensuring safe and legitimate professional contests.

6. Cheaters will always be ahead of testing entities.

It is this fifth point that is the most troubling. Boxing lacks a central regulating authority. Although there are universal standards for weight classes, the applicable rules of titles fights, the criteria for judging rounds and the banning of certain liquids and foreign substances, the enforcement of these rules is left to the various international boxing boards and commissions, and in the United States, the myriad state commissions.

Obviously, not all commissions enforce rules similarly, if at all. (The Texas Board of Licensing and Regulation failed to administer a post-fight drug test for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in his last fight even though he had failed a drug test earlier in his career.) In addition, fights can be shopped around for weak commissions. (Tyson-Lewis famously wound up in Tennessee because that state was one of the few that would license Tyson.) Furthermore, as Gabriel Montoya (of and others have cited in their recent work, the standards of the various boxing jurisdictions can vary significantly, such as in the case of a permissible level of testosterone. In short, there isn't a level playing field among boxing commissions.

Nevertheless, it's clear that the tide is turning in favor of more stringent PED testing in boxing – and this is a wonderful development. In addition to negating the legitimate results of a boxing match, PEDs can cause serious damage to fighters, both the ones who use them and the boxers who face dopers in the ring.

In the upcoming months, as more fighters and promoters insist on stricter drug testing standards, expect more boxers to fail tests. In the short term, fans of the sport will suffer – as they already have with the cancellations of Khan-Peterson II and Ortiz-Berto II (Lamont Peterson and Andre Berto failed drug tests). However, the good of protecting fighters' safety and the legitimacy of boxing matches far outweighs temporary fan dissatisfaction from cancelled events.  

If a few eggs need to be broken to yield a cleaner sport, so be it. In five years, when stricter drug testing protocols will be followed for all title fights and major boxing matches, we will look back at this time in the sport as a seminal moment.  Boxers, like other professional athletes, will now have to accept complete responsibility for what they put in their bodies; the alternatives will be too harrowing for those who aren’t compliant: Million-dollar paydays will be lost, title opportunities will fall by the wayside and network and promoters will stop dealing with serial PED offenders.

Again, it is not that steroids and PEDs are new. Fighters such as Roy Jones and James Toney failed drug tests years ago. Vitali Klitschko tested positive as an amateur. What is different is the change in boxing stakeholders’ attitudes towards PEDs. A fighter using a PED no longer gets a mere shoulder shrug. The realization and acceptance that these drugs can cause significant harm to the sport's participants have been the real turning point.

As baseball writer Bill James has often pointed out, scandals, most often, involve a society's intolerance of past wrongs and a search for better ethical standards. In short, the stakeholders in boxing – the fighters, promoters, writers, fans, commissions and networks – are starting to take more ownership of the sport; this is a significant development and will help ensure boxing’s future health and ultimate viability. The permissiveness of the past regarding PEDs will become a reminder of another era. Those who object to the new testing protocols will be on the wrong side of history.

One of the unique features of boxing has always been its rugged individualism. Unlike the majority of other professional sports, with their reliance on leagues, teamwork, salary caps and collective bargaining, boxing is still the Wild Wild West. The sport's a hustle. Fighters can go as far as their talent and notoriety take them. The best in the sport need only to get paid two or three nights a year to earn as much as the top athletes around the world.

However, the majority of boxers desire an even playing field.  They want to know that they have a chance to ascend to the highest echelons of boxing without the additional threats of doping opponents, or the need to succumb to the lure of PEDs just to remain viable within the sport. They love the individuality of boxing but they also want reasonable protection from the external threats of PEDs.

Stricter drug testing has added some necessary, additional regulation of the sport. There's still no global boxing commission or authority (this may be a good thing), or in America, a national commission (this is most certainly a bad thing). But the ultimate goal of all boxing regulating entities is the protection and safety of fighters in a sport that results in so much long-term physical damage to its participants even under the best of circumstances. The West might now be less wild, but today the sport is in a better place than it was just 12 months ago.

Although the engine for stricter drug testing in the sport may have been powered by a fighter who was in no rush to meet his number-one rival (Floyd Mayweather) and a convicted felon who had previously been instrumental in creating numerous PEDs (Victor Conte), whatever motives these individuals had in calling for more rigorous testing protocols are now far less important than the end result of their actions: a cleaner and more just sport.

There will be some ugly days ahead. Big events will be cancelled. A new series of outcasts will be created. Role models will be destroyed; bad actors exposed. Boxers and promoters will rail about fights falling through and missed revenue. Fans will be deprived of compelling matchups and the opportunity to enjoy watching their favorite fighters ply their trade. No one will enjoy "dark" Saturday nights on television when there should have been a big fight.

However, the sport will be in a better place with stricter PED testing.  As boxing fans, we should feel good that these new protocols will help protect more fighters and ensure the legitimacy of future matches. This is a big win for boxing.

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