Opinion: Second Chances

By Jeff Sherwood May 20, 2011
Are fighters like Chael Sonnen being punished too harshly? | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Having been a fan of Chael Sonnen for many years now, there are mixed emotions going through my head after his Wednesday hearing with the California State Athletic Commission.

Years ago -- before Sonnen was a true star, but when he was well on his way -- I went to visit the Team Quest gym in Gresham, Ore., and spent some time around Sonnen. I noticed his work ethic. I noticed his clean living and his pure dedication to the sport.

It seems that, somewhere between then and now, something happened.

Sonnen single-handedly gave UFC 117 the pop it needed. Let’s not kid ourselves: nobody was clamoring for Chael Sonnen versus Anderson Silva until Sonnen began to talk. He nailed the often-missing hype component of the sport so well that some said he went overboard with his trash talk. No matter how people felt about it, though, they noticed him talking.

It will be a very sad thing if Wednesday’s ruling means that we have truly seen the last of an athlete like Sonnen. Many will say that he got what he deserved, having broken the rules by testing positive for a banned substance, and I get that. You’re right, and he did. But so have countless others across all sports. The late MLB reliever Steve Howe was suspended seven times for drug-related offenses.

UFC President Dana White has stated that he wants MMA to be as big as the National Football League someday. The typical suspension for violators of the NFL’s drug policy is four games -- basically, a slap on the wrist. The typical suspension of a mixed martial artist lasts one year, which seems a bit harsh considering that everyone -- from athletes to commissioners, promoters to fans -- knows that performance enhancing drugs exist in professional sports. I’m not arguing that PEDs should be legal or that we shouldn’t care about steroids, but when athletes are caught and admit to messing up, let’s work with them a bit more.

People buy pay-per-views and tickets to events so they can see the fighters. In a sport full of horrible decisions and people in high places who seem to love the power that they have, we need to remember that it’s all about the athletes. Yes, Chael Sonnen screwed up. Could he have handled his situation differently? Of course, but how should these situations be handled? Even fighters who have admitted their wrongdoing and thrown themselves upon the mercy of commissions have been hit pretty hard in the past.

We have to be honest with ourselves: PEDs exist in professional sports. Somewhere in the world, a curling sweeper is probably using steroids. It’s against the law, but so many athletes do it just to be able to compete in today’s sports. Pro athletes are pushed year after year to tackle harder, hit longer home runs, jump higher and knock more people out. Then, when they’re caught doing things that will help them perform to the standards set, everyone turns against them.

Most MMA fighters have a hard enough time buying food to feed their bodies properly with the money they make; being forced to sit out for a year is a huge blow. Four games to an NFL player is the equivalent of a parking ticket.

Look, I get it: these players have broken the rules. But commissioners, judges and referees in MMA -- not to mention the millions working in or around the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL -- are able to feed their families because of what these professional athletes do. Let’s give them a little bit of love.
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