Manchester City's £35,000 fine says an awful lot about English soccer's anti-doping system.
Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Last week, the English Football Association, which handles all anti-doping testing for English soccer in partnership with UK Anti-Doping, fined Manchester City £35,000 for failing to report the whereabouts of their players on three separate occasions. This, apparently, is part of a crackdown of sorts on the FA's part. On February 17, Bournemouth was charged with a similar offense, and on February 1 Fleetwood Town was fined £4,000 for the same violation.
Curiously, these punishments are very different from what an individual athlete would face for the same infraction, despite the fact that both adhere to World Anti-Doping Agency's protocol. If an Olympic athlete, for example, were to provide inaccurate whereabouts information three times, as Manchester City did, in an 18-month period, she would face a one-to-two-year ban under WADA's rules and regulations because it's considered equivalent to a positive test. So, too, would an individual player in the English Premier League if he personally gave inaccurate whereabouts information three times.
This discrepancy in punishment for the same crime violates one of WADA's core philosophical underpinnings of unified rules around the world. So why the massive difference? In order to explain, we have to go back to why the whereabouts rule exists in the first place.
The basic principle here is that if athletes have a general idea when they will be tested, they can take a banned substance and still test clean by scheduling their doses accordingly. In 2003, WADA introduced out-of-competition testing to combat this. In order to test an athlete, however, you have to know where they are. Hence, whereabouts.
The rules are different depending on the athlete's level of competition, but the idea is athletes must tell the relevant doping authority where they will be so that they can be surprise-tested. Most of the time, individual athletes are responsible for submitting their whereabouts, but for soccer players the responsibility falls to their clubs, which means that English teams must keep the FA informed on their training, travel schedules, and updated home addresses for players. When Manchester City changed their training schedule, they didn't tell the FA on three separate occasions, so they got fined.
The logic behind the whereabouts requirements is sound, but, like most other elements of anti-doping, it works better in theory than in practice. One of the main purposes of WADA's existence is to create uniform rules across athletes in the sporting world, but that's not the case here.
If it were, Manchester City would be banned from competing for two years because of a whereabouts violation, which would be one of the most severe punishments ever levied on a soccer team. Could you even begin to imagine the epic freak-out over this from virtually everyone in the sporting world? So, instead, the FA slaps them on the wrist with a fine roughly equivalent to the amount of money Manchester City's owner makes in a second.
This discrepancy between how individual athletes and soccer teams provide, and are punished for, whereabouts information is "clearly not ideal," says Verner Møller, a professor of sports science at Aarhus University who studies doping issues. "How will the team official be able to update information about players whereabouts if they decide to go the movie theater instead of sitting idle at home waiting for the control officer to turn up?"
WADA can only control so much. Their primary responsibilities are to publish the anti-doping code and prohibited substances list, accredit labs around the world to do testing, and coordinate between regional anti-doping authorities. Outside of Olympic events, WADA does very little testing themselves; almost all of it is done by the regional anti-doping authorities who then send the samples to WADA-accredited labs. So while WADA does control what substances are banned, they can't control who gets tested or how often; testing is expensive, running an anti-doping authority even more so, and WADA has nowhere near the necessary funding to do either of those things on a grand scale.
Instead, those on-the-ground elements are executed by the regional anti-doping authorities—in this case, UK Anti-Doping—in partnership with the governing body that runs the sport, which for English soccer is the FA. It is up to those two entities to agree on how often testing should be done, and what the punishments should be for violating pre-testing procedures.
The FA granted itself incredible leeway in administering punishments for whereabouts violations. It's not even technically an "anti-doping" charge at all, but rather general "misconduct" for which the possible punishments range anywhere from a reprimand to expulsion—which is to say, just about anything the FA wants. (A specific player with three whereabouts violations in 12 months would be subject to a one-to-two-year ban, just like an Olympic athlete.)
You could see how this could work in a worst-case scenario: a team helps its players dope, then fails to tell the FA the whereabouts of those players on three separate occasions—the FA has a three-strikes policy before they investigate teams—and the punishment is a simple slap on the wrist. This would certainly be an extreme case, but the whereabouts policy combined with the rare frequency of testing would allow for such systematic doping.
The FA ran 2,442 tests last season, although they don't test every league or team evenly. Considering the system covers the first team, U-23s, and U-18s, as well as women's teams, it's mathematically impossible they tested every player last year.
Furthermore, while 2,442 may sound like a lot of tests, it's not. This averages out to 47 tests a week. There are 92 senior teams in the top four tiers of the FA alone. Even if we were to assume that every single test was in those top four flights of senior teams—and they weren't—and conservatively estimate 25 players to a squad, that amounts to about one test for every two teams per week. But, again, this is the most charitable estimate. The number is likely much smaller when accounting for youth and women's teams. When testing is that rare, it's easy to time cycles and microdoses to always piss clean.
As a result, positive tests in soccer simply don't happen. According to the FA's website, there have been six charges for doping violations since 2012 out of 7,745 tests. That's .077 percent of the tests resulting in a performance-enhancing sanction, or the same odds you or a family member will be struck by lightning.
The actual number of caught dopers is likely even lower. Those six charges include "interference," which is anything that prevents the test from taking place or being scientifically valid (but not including whereabouts violations, which are a separate matter). The website doesn't break down how many are positive tests versus interference charges. It only notes the figure includes both.
Soccer outside of the UK doesn't do much better. In UEFA tournaments—Champions and Europa Leagues—UEFA collected 2,388 samples in 2014-15 and had not one positive test.
According to the FIFA database, which includes all WADA testing in soccer, 32,632 samples were collected in 2015, yielding 70 positive performance-enhancing tests (there were eight positive cannabinoid tests, but cannabis is not performance-enhancing). If you're keeping score at home, that's a hit rate of .22 percent.
For comparison's sake, WADA's annual testing pool for Olympic sport competitions tend to yield a positive test in 1-2 percent of samples, or between four and nine times as often as in soccer. It's impossible to know the actual doping rate in soccer, but an anonymous survey conducted by WADA found that somewhere between 29 and 45 percent of Olympic-caliber athletes in elite competitions knowingly use banned substances.
From all this, we can conclude either soccer players don't dope—like, at all—or the testing doesn't work. Considering the last century or so of sports history, the latter seems far more likely, which raises the question of why, even by doping test standards, soccer testing is particularly ineffective.
The only real motivation for any sporting organization to punish dopers is because the public, and therefore sponsors, thinks doping is a problem. Nobody thinks doping in European soccer is a problem. In fact, you could make the argument that, along with improved nutrition and smarter training, it has contributed to a faster, more skillful game where players can run longer and more often, allowing for a packed competition schedule.
It would make no sense for FIFA or the FA or any other soccer governing body to clamp down on doping for similar reasons it made little sense for Major League Baseball to clamp down on steroids during the Home Run era. It would hurt the product and only serve to create an unquellable moral outrage.
Which brings us back to the whereabouts. The meager punishments levied are in proportion to the FA's desire to actually accomplish the goal of catching dopers. All the way around, it's a lesson in just how lackadaisically everyone involved takes doping procedures. The clubs can't be bothered to update their whereabouts and the FA can only bother to let them off with little more than a warning. As usual with doping, nobody cares, until they suddenly do.
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