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UFC 193: USADA's 'Prohibited Association' Clause Unjust for Valerie Letourneau

Mike Chiappetta@MikeChiappettaMMA Senior ColumnistNovember 11, 2015

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Valerie Letourneau speaks during a UFC 193 Sydney Fan Event on September 17, 2015 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brendon Thorne/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The mission to curb performance-enhancing drug use in sports is fraught with challenges, most expected but many unforeseen. The thing about combating drug cheats, or cheats of any kind, is that a one-size-fits-all policy almost never works. Codes are designed to be uniform, but often penalize unfairly.

Take for instance, the recent notice given by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to disallow UFC strawweight title challenger Valerie Letourneau from having suspended UFC welterweight Hector Lombard as a cornerman for her fight against champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. In January, USADA adopted the World Anti-Doping Agency's "Prohibited Association" rule, which bars athletes from associating with coaches, trainers, physicians, or other athlete support personnel who are sanctioned and/or criminally convicted of doping.

Lombard, who was given a one-year ban after testing positive for the steroid desoxymethyltestosterone in January, is a teammate of Letourneau's at American Top Team in Florida. He essentially serves as one of her coaches. That is publicly known. What is not so public is that the two are in an involved relationship. While they have not gone out of their way to confirm it, the two have occasionally made references to it, either in photos or more recently, in a dual interview in which they briefly discussed it.

This is most certainly a complicating consideration, mostly because freedom of association has been interpreted to be an essential part of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, with "intimate association" as a subset protecting private, personal relationships. Even those regarding non-Americans.

FightOpinion @FightOpinion

https://t.co/qhRmPt7Vr2 This USADA/UFC "prohibitive association" clause begs for a lawsuit. https://t.co/N2yP4XmMta Also bans convicted?

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Moreover, Lombard was punished in January, prior to the UFC's partnership with USADA. According to Article 20.5 of the program, the Anti-Doping policy "shall not apply retroactively to matters pending before the Effective Date." Prohibited Association policies adopted by other countries have specific language in relation to retroactive bans, barring those that have "been convicted or found in a criminal, disciplinary or professional proceeding to have engaged in conduct which would have constituted a violation of anti-doping rules if [WADA] Code-compliant rules had been applicable..." The Nevada Athletic Commission is not WADA Code-compliant, for example, relying on non-accredited lab Quest Diagnostics for Lombard's positive test result.

If Letourneau or even Lombard were so inclined, they might have the makings of a legal challenge to USADA's ruling. 

This is just another case where a UFC fighters association would have worked to protect the athletes from misguided policy that is dictated instead of cooperatively reached.

The problem of USADA's rule here is not in the intent but the effect. The intent of the rule is to penalize the drug cheat; in Letourneau's case, she is the one being penalized by losing an experienced set of eyes in her corner. According to USADA rules, she could be subject to a penalty of up to two years for associating with Lombard in a sport-related capacity.

To illustrate how counterintuitive this is, the UFC's own drug czar, Jeff Novitzky, originally told MMA Junkie, "I think the spirit of the prohibited association is for somebody who is distributing or advising an athlete on how to use drugs, not an athlete who was using themselves and got caught."

In other words, to his understanding, the statute was written to keep dealers or pushers away from talent. 

The realities of MMA and its camp-based approach make the "prohibited association" penalty difficult to enforce with any true uniformity. For example, is everyone that Lombard comes into contact with at American Top Team facing the same kind of trouble as Letourneau? 

Hector Lombard
Hector LombardMike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

If you've ever stepped foot into an MMA gym for more than five minutes, you'd know they are filled with learning and sharing opportunities. After more than two decades of competing in martial arts both in judo at the Olympic level and in MMA at an elite level, Lombard brings a wealth of knowledge that makes him an indispensable teammate, and there is zero chance he is not tutoring someonemaybe everyone on something, every day. 

The ability to share something—PED knowledge—is what USADA is trying to stop; noble in theory, but wholly inefficient in most instances.

Lombard and other suspended fighters are unlikely to completely remove themselves from the sport for the entire span of their bans. So even if you see this as a fair penalty for doping, is it enforceable? Banned athletes are going to find a way to train, and in MMA, you need partners to do that, to push and pull, punch and kick. If it's not in the Coconut Creek, Florida gym, perhaps it will be on some mats at his house, or at a local school. But in a sport with team-based training, he and the other suspended fighters will find their team.

Allowing athletes to maintain the structure of their training routines is both humane and progressive. Unlike major sports, where most athletes are millionaires and can temporarily relocate to a willing coach or hire an individual training guru to prepare for reinstatement, most mixed martial artists don't have the resources to adjust the same way. Even if they did, there are precious few top-level coaches unaffiliated with gyms. Making the drug cheat a pariah is the whole point of the penalty, but robbing them of their entire support system, and by extension, teammates of their support, is a double-edged punishment. So you end up where we are now, with innocent parties affected.

This isn't the same thing as a coach who is supplying steroids to his athletes. There is no evidence that Lombard has some sinister agenda he is promoting. He pled guilty and accepted his 12-month competition suspension from earning a paycheck, and that should be the extent of it. Instead, he is supposed to separate himself from his girlfriend and team, and she is supposed to remove possibly her most important support system. 

Expose her to additional testing scrutiny? Sure. Fighting PEDs requires some sacrifice, even from the innocent. But asking someone to give up their partner is more than a sacrifice. In the real world, we try to keep convicted felons from associating with other criminals, but we don't stop upstanding citizens from giving cons a path back to legitimacy. Lombard is not a dealer; he's a boyfriend providing the support expected in a relationship. In this case, USADA one-size-fits-all policy does not work. In this case, it's mostly charade and pretense.

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