Soccer’s doping problem and its ramifications on Major League Soccer

Jul 27, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; MLS commissioner Don Garber (center) speaks at the MLS All-Star welcome reception at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 27, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; MLS commissioner Don Garber (center) speaks at the MLS All-Star welcome reception at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

Sports and steroids. The two topics have been inextricably linked for the past 50 years. The subject of perforhe mance enhancing drugs is a topic that has been brought to light in pretty much every major sport in the world. Baseball, basketball, American football, hockey, rugby, track and field, and cycling.

It appears that soccer is not immune to this issue. In a piece published by The Sunday Times it was revealed that UEFA recently commissioned a study to determine how widespread the usage of anabolic steroids might be in the European game. Using the urine tests taken from 4,000 urine tests taken during the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League, and the two most recent European Championships scientists were able to determine that 68 of the 879 players tested may have been using anabolic steroids.

This is not the first time that soccer and steroids have been linked to one another. Serie A in the 1980’s was beseiged by steroid allegations which included the deaths of four Fiorentina players that were alleged to have been due to steroid usage (those claims were never verified). In 2001, then-Brescia defender Pep Guardiola was banned after testing positive for the banned substance nandrolone. Guardiola fought the charges for years and eventually was exonerated. Other players Adrian Mutu of Chelsea and Jaap Stam have also served suspensions after testing positive for banned substances.

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With 7.7 percent of those tested having what is considered elevated testosterone levels obviously this raises some serious red flags for the international soccer community. Given that the sample includes players from countries outside of Europe and in the case of the European championship, players who play club football outside of Europe. It is an issue that may sound inextricably European but the ramifications of such a study extend far beyond the continent.

What is interesting about all of the recent talk over the use of anabolic steroids in soccer is how quiet Major League Soccer has been on the issue. Part of that is due to the lack of suspensions. In the league’s history only three players have ever been suspended for illegal substances (Jon Conway and Jeff Parke of the New York Red Bulls in 2008) with both players claiming that they had taken dietary supplements. In 2011, Columbus Crew defender Josh Williams was suspended for 10 days for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

A cursory glance on the league’s website provides little to no insight into league policy. The league does have to test players according to FIFA bylaws but those rules very open to interpretation. It is also hard to take FIFA seriously when they mention in their own report that their is no way to perform tests on players when they are out of competition.

While that might sound like a good thing it should raise some level of suspicion. How can 7.7 percent of players in Europe show abnormally high levels of testosterone yet not one MLS player has tested positive for a banned substance in seven years?

Perhaps the players are altruistic or perhaps MLS teams and the league are doing a good job at developing methods and routines that look at these matters carefully. But it almost seems too good to be true that in a country where performance enhancing drug use in sports is rampant and in a sport where it is known to happen that MLS and the lower divisions of U.S. Soccer are immune to this problem.

The problem with professional sports leagues and performance-enhancing drugs is that they are backward thinkers on issues like these. Rather than confronting the issues ahead of time questions are ignored and problems are swept under the rug. The example of drug use in Major League Baseball and having to be grilled in front of Congress is a perfect example of a league that needed to be humbled in public to admit their own shortcomings.

MLS can take the lead on this issue and it does not require much of a pivot from its current stance. The league has already shown in its handling of substance abuse issues like alcohol and drugs that it can suspend players for when they do have issues but give them the help that they need to overcome their problems. By treating the issue as a health concern and not one where people are ostracized they can serve as an example for the rest of the footballing world.

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