Sonnen’s Suspension Reduced

By Jason Probst Dec 2, 2010
Chael Sonnen: J. Probst |

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- After a lengthy hearing Thursday, the California State Athletic Commission voted 3-1, leaving Chael Sonnen suspended through March 2 with a $2,500 fine for violating its substance abuse policy. That much is clear.

The suspension -- originally handed down last September after Sonnen’s positive drug test following his bout with Anderson Silva at UFC 117 in Oakland -- was shortened to six months from its original one-year duration. An earlier motion to uphold the original suspension was deadlocked on a 2-2 vote.

While Sonnen’s eligibility to compete again is now established, the fighter and the commission evidenced a clear disconnect regarding who knew what, and when, about the testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) which Sonnen had been undergoing since early 2008.

At times, the testimony and cross-examination involving Sonnen, his doctor and his legal team did not mesh with what the commission said, shedding light on the murkiness of the treatment and how it should be handled in lieu of banned substances which trigger similar test results.

Sonnen’s TRT was prescribed by a physician for low testosterone levels, but the Commission cited Sonnen’s failure to properly document the treatment with the CSAC via required paperwork. According to Sonnen -- who competed in California against Yushin Okami in October 2009 while undergoing TRT -- he believed he had informed the commission properly. Persons undergoing the treatment can administer the testosterone in a variety of ways, including creams and injections; Sonnen’s routine included self-injecting twice a week.

But, it turns out, the doctor whom Sonnen was reporting his treatment to was a medical consultant hired by the UFC to assist in other matters, and was not certified to act on behalf of the CSAC or any other similar entity.

“At every jurisdiction -- California, England, Nevada -- he was there. He filled out the appropriate paperwork, had a stethoscope, and handled the forms in question,” said Sonnen during his testimony. “It was my understanding that he was a doctor for every commission.”

Because of this misunderstanding, Sonnen claims, he believed he had informed the CSAC of his TRT regimen. George Dodd, executive director of the commission, said that Sonnen’s first disclosure to any CSAC representative was on the night of the fight with Silva.

On his pre-fight paperwork -- filled out prior to the urine test, which was given the day before the Aug. 7 bout -- Sonnen did list a testosterone shot taken the day before. But the CSAC indicated that the first time the commission was informed was when Sonnen gave a urine specimen -- standard procedure for a fighter participating in a championship bout -- the night before the fight. Sonnen and Dodd both agreed the fighter told Dodd about the shots then.

Dodd indicated that he had searched the commission’s archives and found no record of Sonnen informing the CSAC about his TRT treatment. When Sonnen told him the night before the fight that was undergoing the treatment, according to California state law, Dodd would still need test results to take any action, and therefore had no choice but to allow the bout take place.

Dodd was also asked if the CSAC has an existing policy to allow fighters to compete while undergoing TRT.

“There is, but they would still have to test within the normal range,” Dodd said. Speaking with media after the hearing, Dodd said that one fighter had competed in the state after notifying the commission he was undergoing TRT, but declined to identify the athlete, citing privacy rules.

Dr. Gary Furness was at the event on behalf of the CSAC. Furness testified that that no one from Sonnen’s team, nor the UFC, informed him that Sonnen was undergoing TRT.

Because TRT involves a synthetic form of testosterone administered manually, it elevates the body’s ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, which, in Sonnen’s case, triggered a positive result for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). His test ratio was 16.9:1, where the normal threshold ratio is 4:1. However, the CSAC did cite that, while Sonnen’s test results of the ratio itself were high, his actual range of testosterone was within the normal levels for adult males.

Sonnen maintained that he had informed the CSAC of the treatment, which was prescribed to him by his doctor in early 2008 after Sonnen was diagnosed with low testosterone; that confusion stemmed from a series of five blood tests his team submitted to the UFC consultant during his treatment.

Sonnen’s physician, Mark Czarnecki, an osteopathic doctor, also testified before the commission. In January 2008, Czarnecki examined Sonnen. Czarnecki testified that resulting tests revealed a low testosterone level compared to the regular range for adult males. Sonnen evidenced symptoms of mental fogginess and poor stamina, and was diagnosed with hypogonadism, a condition that results in low testosterone.

Czarnecki subsequently prescribed a regiment of self-administered testosterone injections for Sonnen, beginning in February 2008.

After testimony concluded, the commission ultimately voted 3-1 to penalize Sonnen with a six-month suspension -- beginning on the Sept. 2 date of the positive test results -- and a $2,500 fine. An earlier motion to uphold the suspension in its one-year duration and the fine stalled at 2-2, prompting the shorter alternative.

While athletes undergoing TRT is no doubt a contentious subject for commissions to take on, contacted Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, an expert in the field.

Dr. Morgentaler, author of “Testosterone for Life” and associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard University, said that the issue is especially relevant for athletes.

“If somebody is not [naturally] making enough testosterone, then they are at an unfair position. If it were a thyroid or insulin deficiency, nobody would have a problem with those treatments. The problem there is a long history of abuse and cheating for people who are using substances that are testosterone or testosterone-like. That’s really the issue,” Morgentaler said. “I think the way to solve it is, my understanding is, a lot of the professional sports have figured some of this out, and there are some committees that look for therapeutic exemptions in these sports. I’d be almost certain there are men in professional football, baseball and hockey who have testosterone deficiencies and have quietly gotten exemptions.”

For the “competitive disadvantage” argument regarding athletes diagnosed with testosterone deficiency, Morgentaler says there’s no question it applies. When the PGA Tour suspended golfer Doug Barron in 2009 under its anti-doping policy for a positive test, Barron countered that he was undergoing TRT for hypogonadism. In a release issued in support of Barron’s treatment, Morgentaler said that Barron was merely “among the nearly 20 percent of adult men who suffer from this medical condition, ‘Low T,’ in which the body produces too little testosterone, sapping strength, weakening bones and causing chronic fatigue. They need testosterone treatment to restore their levels to a normal range.” Morgentaler characterized TRT as a “standard, medically accepted therapy.”

Dr. Van Lemons, a member of the CSAC, said that a policy needs to be developed in order to avoid future confusion for fighters undergoing TRT and other treatments that may cause problems with testing for banned substances.

“We have to handle this carefully. It’s ridiculous to think we could handle this hours before a show,” said Lemons, citing Sonnen’s fight-night disclosure to Dodd that he was undergoing TRT. “We have got to become proactive in preparing for that. Moving forward, we need to have a ruling for this…for every medical condition.”

After the hearing, Sonnen and his attorneys declined further comment.
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