Wednesday, March 9, 2016


by Savannah

Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports photo 06d21a3a-8ee3-4658-9dc7-71e8a84b24fe_zpsgrjq0ma1.jpg
via Jayne Kamin-Oncea USA Today

It's no secret. Back in the day there were sports heroes and heroines. Men and women who were sold to the public at large as examples of all that sports should exemplify - fairness, honesty, respect for one's teammates. These athletes got away with things because sports reporters made their living based on access to the star. No one was going to report Mickey Mantle's problems with alcohol because he was Mr. Yankee, blond, Southern, all aw shucks and a shy confident grin. Towards the end of Mantle's life the truth couldn't be hidden anymore. Drugs? Some MLB teams are now known to have stocked "green pills" that helped a player get over a night out partying.

Some readers may have no idea who Mickey Mantle was since baseball is really not a world sport so lets fast forward to 2016. Something called the internet (interwebs by some) has taken sports reporting out of an all male closed environment and made it something that everyone, male or female, young or old, can do. Thirty years ago there was no such thing as a blogger. Now there are superfans all over the world following the exploits, good or bad of the best of the best and maybe the almost best. Fandoms are varied and all kinds of people now write about and expose the actions of their faves, good or bad, not only to the country they live in but to the world. Some sports have taken steps to control the narrative. The NBA and NFL lead in this category. Fans were given the ability to watch the NFL Combine, the process by which prospective players try out for teams. Unprecedented. The NBA saw fans were making their own gifs of great and not so great moments so now we have NBA Memes. A superstar athlete needs more than an agent these days. He or she needs a team to handle press, internet and print media. No serious sports fan thinks their fave is posting their own Tweets, Facebook entries or Instagram photos. They have people for that and those people go along with what the agent who oversees it all wants to project to the public before posting anything.

It's no different in tennis. An image is decided on for a top player and any photos, press releases, press conferences are tightly scripted to make sure the athlete, and the people covering the beat, stick to the script. Added to the professionals are families. The more successful the player the more likely you are to find a tight knit group of people, often family, who further make sure the agreed upon image of the star is adhered to. The best examples of this are of course Venus Williams and Serena Williams whose parents stood at the gate and fought off all comers until their daughters were old enough to understand how the game is played and they were able to step back from the spotlight.

The other example of this is Maria Sharapova. Her father, Yuri Sharapov, singlehandedly manned the gate for many years stepping away when his daughter felt secure enough to manage her own affairs. This is an important step in the life of a tennis player. They are the center of their own universes and it's clear that there are some who publicly revel in the power they have over their lives and the lives of their employees. Others keep their actions behind the scenes while others publicly revel in the role of Head Bitch in Charge.

This leads to awkwardness at times. Some fans of Serena for instance didn't like the change from her parents to a team that included people they didn't know and were predisposed to dislike. It had to be pointed out to them that it is Serena calling the shots and that questioning her team was questioning her management of her career. It took time but they backed down.

The title of this blog post is entitlement though and I think the above seeming diversion is a necessary lead in to the situation the WTA, and tennis, finds itself in regarding Maria Sharapova.

It's been clear for many years that the dominant player in women's tennis has been Serena Williams. For reason's I'm not going into it was decided years ago by the people in charge of tennis, that it would be Maria Sharapova who would be marketed not just to tennis fans but to the world as the face of women's tennis. After her Wimbledon win in 2004 those inside tennis thought the sky was the limit, that she would dominate women's tennis. She's won four Slams since then but has become rich from endorsements fueled by that win twelve years ago. "Best paid female athlete in the world" is her claim to fame.

Despite the sunlight being let into various dark corners of the sport there are things that are still done behind the scenes, things that never reach the public. Late withdrawal? No problem for Sharapova while her "nemesis" is vilified by tennis media for withdrawing from tournaments that in many cases she never intended to play. We the general public will never know everything that went on behind the scenes but with the events of Monday, March 7, 2016 the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Ms Sharapova believed herself to be untouchable, that whatever tale she spun for the public would be accepted because after all she is Maria Sharapova.

The best description of Monday's stunning press conference was done by BBC reporter Tom Fordyce which is quoted below.

Black blouse, pale face. That was Maria Sharapova as she announced her failed drugs test.

Sharapova, a woman so focused on the small details that, according to her long-time agent Max Eisenbud, she will peel the label off bottles of water she drinks in nightclubs just in case someone takes a photo of her with a product she has not yet endorsed, has attacked this storm as she does a struggling opponent on court.

Announcements of failed tests are supposed to come from the sport's governing body. That can leave time for rumours to swirl and opinions to harden. Consider everything Sharapova did in that Los Angeles hotel on Monday in that light.

The backdrop: beige curtain. Sober. Calm. The outfit: black shirt with long sleeves, long black trousers. An ensemble for mourning, an image of gravity and abstinence.

The legal position once she failed that test for meldonium is straightforward. Either she has deliberately taken it, knowing it is banned - which is cheating - or she has deliberately taken it and not known it is banned - which is negligence. According to anti-doping protocols, a suspension automatically follows either way.

There is no room in that legal process for emotion. Which is why an athlete looking for sympathy and leniency will introduce it as soon as they can.

The first six words Sharapova spoke appeared to be beautifully chosen. "I wanted to let you know..." Personal. Thoughtful. Not "I have been forced to…" or "You would have found out anyway", but an act of choice, an almost moral decision to keep us informed.

"…that a few days ago I received a letter from the ITF that I have failed a drugs test." The introduction of the idea that it is all new to her, that she has been taken by surprise; that this is something happening to her from the outside.

"For the past 10 years I have been given a drug called mildronate by my family doctor…" Not Sharapova choosing to take it. Not a dodgy pharmacist or lab rat, but a family doctor.

"A few days ago, I found out it also has another name, which is meldonium, which I did not know." Not that the drug was on the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) watch-list for the whole of 2015, or that it was announced in September that it would be banned, or that Sharapova received an email to that effect six months ago.

Instead, confusing old science. No reference to Wada's announcement of its 2016 prohibited list, released on 16 September 2015, which prominently contains this sentence: "Meldonium (mildronate) was added because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance."

"It's very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on the banned list, and I was legally taking this medicine."

A solid reference to the legality of taking it, rather than the fact that meldonium has never been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the US, where Sharapova has lived for the past 21 years, or that the use of a drug to treat chronic heart failure seems curious in an otherwise phenomenally fit young woman.

And so it went on. The idea that the essence of the crime was not to click on a link in an email sent by Wada, when everyone listening to her around the world also regularly does not click on links in emails.

The full article is worth a read but the important point is that Ms Sharapova claimed that she didn't click on one link in an email notifying her of the upcoming ban. It's now been revealed that there were five notifications, including wallet cards so that a player would have a handy list of banned substances. The name of this family doctor has not been revealed. Her lawyer, in his carefully crafted statement, made it clear that his client does not have any of the ailments the drug was created to treat. One claim, that it could be used to treat prediabetes has been said by the manufacturer to be false.

The other argument Ms Sharapova and her defenders are making is that the drug was legal until January 1, 2016. That is not totally true either. It was on the WADA watch list all of 2015 yet Ms Sharapova continued to take it. The legitimate purpose of the drug is to treat heart failure so why would an 18 year old professional athlete nned it?

There is also the fact that as Mr. Fordyce pointed out Ms Sharapova has lived in the United States for the past 21 years. The drug is not approved for use in the United States which means no licensed physician in this country can prescribe it.

And let's not forget that Ms Sharapova admits to having taken the drug for ten years. The prescribed course of treatment is 4-6 weeks. No one is supposed to be on this drug for a decade.

The spin from her team continues unabated though. Christopher Clarey of the NY Times reprted the following this morning.
It is possible that she will not play on tour again. She will turn 29 next month and has talked in the past about not competing past 30. Her ban could be as long as four years if she is found to have intentionally ingested a performance-enhancing substance.

The more likely outcome, according to legal experts consulted Tuesday, is that she will not be deemed guilty of intentionally trying to cheat, which would mean that she would be subject to a maximum suspension of two years.

“I think that is the most likely outcome from what I heard in the press conference,” said Paul Greene, an American sports lawyer and founder of Global Sports Advocates, who has represented athletes, including the American tennis player Robert Kendrick, in arbitration cases involving doping.


Greene said there was also the possibility of applying retroactively for a therapeutic-use exemption for meldonium, which would be based on Sharapova’s long-term medical usage. If approved, it could absolve her.

“That would be the first thing I would counsel her to do, is to apply for a retroactive T.U.E.,” he said. “It’s a tough standard to meet, a much harder standard than a forward-going T.U.E., but I’ve had a case in the past where that happened, and I’ve gotten retroactive T.U.E.s. that have wiped out adverse analytical findings. It’s not impossible.”

John Haggerty, Sharapova’s lawyer, was asked about that possibility. “Maria and I are looking at all our options,” he said. He also declined to comment, citing confidentiality, on whether Sharapova had listed meldonium, which is also known as mildronate, on her doping control form when she had given samples in the past.

Sharapova said she had been taking the drug, which Haggerty said she knew under the name of mildronate, since 2006 to treat a variety of medical conditions, including irregular EKG results and indicators of diabetes, a condition for which she said she had a family history.

Haggerty rejected suggestions from some prominent doctors that the drug was poorly suited to resolve Sharapova’s declared conditions, including diabetes, and said the drug also provided “cell protection.”

Haggerty said the confidentiality requirements of the coming hearing precluded him from identifying the doctor who prescribed the medicine, which is not approved for sale in the United States but is widely available without a prescription in Russia and some other European nations. Haggerty also indicated that it was only one of several drugs Sharapova was prescribed at the time.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding that Maria took mildronate and only mildronate, and that was to address all of her medical conditions,” Haggerty said. “She took mildronate and a number of other medicines.”

They think they can get away with that last statement huh? If that was the case why wasn't that said during the presser? If they apply for a T.U.E. won't they have to reveal everything she was taking? Do they really want to risk that? They're also waffling about her having listed the drug on her statement made to officials during the Australian Open. I get the feeling officials let her and her team know that they were not going to cover her ass by refusing to release whatever she listed.

It seems to me they're looking for someone in an official capacity to cave, to say she is above the rules other athletes live by and let her off scot free. Isn't that how things have always broken for her? That's the only conclusion I can draw since it's clear she ignored the warnings and continued to take the drug. Only a massive sense of entitlement would allow someone to do what Ms Sharapova seems to have done.

To quote Caroline Wozniacki :

“Anytime we take any medication, we double- and triple-check,” Wozniacki said. “Sometimes even a thing like cough drops and nasal spray can be on the list. So as athletes we make sure not to take something that would put us in a bad situation.”

This story is not over. I'll update when news breaks.

© Savannahs World 2016 All rights reserved unles otherwise indicated

1 comment:

rcm said...

Whoa. I do believe that Sharapova WAS untouchable for all the reasons you state. It must have been a case where they had no choice but to reveal the results. However, I am so cynical I can't help but wonder if they thought getting one big star on a drug test would relieve the pressure to finally DO something about the erratic testing. I do remember that Lance Armstrong never failed a drug test. . . No sympathy for Sharapova, though. And I'm glad they finally DID catch her! Disheartening anyhow.