The COVID-19 pandemic is upending every aspect of modern life, and it’s easy to overlook the many devils in the innumerable minor details of these changes. But one area where such details matter, especially with various new travel and social-distancing restrictions in place and many commercial drug-testing labs preparing to shift available capacity to COVID-19, concerns the ability of professional sports leagues — some of which have suspended or postponed their seasons — and independent anti-doping bodies to test their athletes.
With loopholes galore, superstar athletes looking to extend their careers and marginal players hoping to make a professional roster may find themselves with a much larger window of opportunity to recharge their bodies with banned substances.
“Athletes already have a good idea of how random testing works, and how long certain substances last in their systems,” says former All Big East place kicker and punter Dan Hutchins. “But if you’re someone right on the cusp of landing an NFL contract, like I was, or maybe just trying to get one more season of paychecks, you’re probably watching how testing is or isn’t working, and acting accordingly. Maybe a lightbulb is going on.”
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the independent organization that tests Olympic athletes and UFC fighters, acknowledged this in a press release addressing some of the logistical difficulties presented by COVID-19. For starters, the agency noted it would only be testing “mission-critical” athletes, meaning those participating in sports where athletes are still competing. And now that the UFC has postponed its upcoming events indefinitely, this solely pertains to (more or less) would-be American Olympians who recently qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, which as of today are still scheduled for July. In short, this means a lot less blood and urine testing, full stop, from USADA.
Further, the agency’s doping control officers, who show up unannounced to collect specimens from the likes of UFC great Jon Jones and Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kyle Snyder, will now be encouraged to “wear personal protective gear, including masks and gloves” as well as use “hand sanitizer,” while “maintain[ing] a six-foot distance [from the athletes] during the process.” Officers who are sick won’t be allowed to work, and athletes who are tested will need to wash their hands.
“Six feet within eyesight isn’t great for an athlete looking to pull off a little sleight of hand,” says a trainer who has worked with UFC competitors and other professional athletes attempting to prepare for drug tests. “You can’t do any sample switching or anything. But it’s the other parts of the press release that are interesting. Think about it. Maybe you say you’re ‘not able’ to get tested right away, maybe you say you’re ‘self-isolated’ for 14 days. You could be very hard to find, is what I’m saying. You tell them you’re stuck somewhere. You could be in France and not able to leave. A lot can happen in two weeks of isolation, right? Everybody, everywhere is very confused and disorganized right now, and sports is a low priority. This could be an opportunity for people looking to heal up or make some training progress over the next 18 months — figure out where there are gaps in the testing and act accordingly.”
And that just goes for those sports where USADA does the testing, the trainer says. Most pro leagues, like Major League Baseball and the NBA, handle their own drug testing via policies established during the collective bargaining process. The NBA, which had a few athletes test positive for performance-enhancing drugs earlier this season, has a policy that’s either toothless from a regulatory perspective or very player-protective, depending on who you ask.
“Most sports have unions — unlike the UFC, which employs independent contractors and tests them through a deal with USADA — and in those unionized sports the players’ representatives bargain for provisions like testing,” says fitness journalist Anthony Roberts. “What might seem like a lenient testing regimen, with a limited number of in-season or out-of-season random tests and a shorter list of banned substances, is something the players have bargained for and the league has agreed to. It’s a labor issue, at that point. These are protections that the labor union has won for its players, and may choose to trade for other concessions the next time they go to the bargaining table.”
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement provides for four in-season and two out-of-season random tests, and a first positive test for a performance-enhancing drug will result in a 25-game suspension (the NBA season is 82 games long), a second offense will result in a 55-game suspension and the third will result in dismissal from the league. The league itself utilizes a third-party organization to conduct 1,525 random tests during the season and 600 random tests during the offseason.
“But think about where we’re at right now,” says the trainer who assists athletes with drug-test preparation. “You have several players in COVID-19 quarantine. Kevin Durant is supposedly asymptomatic. They’re just sitting there. You can’t randomly test them, can you? Also, is this the offseason or the regular season, since the season is ‘suspended’? Which rules apply? Even if you say it’s the regular season, does a suspension mean tests are suspended? At the very least it’s arguable.”
A source close to USADA agrees that some athletes may be tempted to seek special advantages during this period. “USADA has its suspicions that this is going to happen, and it’s going to continue testing as much as is feasible to try to prevent anyone from taking unfair advantage of the situation.”
Essentially, professional leagues in various states of shutdown are going to have to figure out how to navigate a murky liminal period when it’s unclear whether in-season or out-of-season rules apply, how to test athletes who may be citizens of countries that have now placed travel bans limiting their movement and whether to attempt to test athletes who are in quarantine or self-isolation due to a positive test for COVID-19.
“The other thing we should consider is drug testing in countries that have had pre-existing issues with athletes who have doped, such as Russia,” says the source close to USADA.
The Russian example, discussed at length in the documentary Icarus, is especially relevant because it involved state sponsorship and oversight of athlete doping, under the guise of public health law. There, the Russian Ministry of Sport interfered heavily in the operation of a state-run testing laboratory, with the country’s Deputy Minister for Sport issuing orders to “save” athlete samples and report them as negative to the World Anti-Doping Agency when the athlete was known to be doping.
“It will be open season in places where doping is part of the national sports culture,” says the drug-test trainer. “Think of the confusion leading into Tokyo 2020, if Japan manages to pull off that event. Think of all the excuses some of these notably dirty countries could put together. USADA has a pretty good lid on its pool here in the U.S., because of all the high-profile scandals they’ve already publicized, but most top-down, authoritarian countries have a different relationship with their athletes. They’re out to help them win, not bust them. And you can probably come up with a million excuses, or carve out a million exceptions, right now.”
Hutchins, who came thisclose to playing in the NFL, gets it. “If a lot of money depended on it, I would’ve done what I needed to do, I’m sure. I was a very good athlete. All of the guys who get close are very good. But it’s about recovery and that extra edge. For most people, it’s not really a question if they see an opening to use something that might give them that. You don’t get many chances to make a living in sports.”
Roberts concurs. “Cheaters get caught, winners get contracts and everyone with a financial stake in a sport or activity is looking for loopholes in the rules.”
And COVID-19 is certainly providing an endless amount of them.