Appearing at a Los Angeles press conference on Monday, five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, 28, announced testing positive for the recently banned drug meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open. In a prepared statement, the highest-earning female athlete shared she started taking the then legal drug in 2006 to improve various health issues including a heart condition, a symptom the drug is known to treat. In addition to treating heart issues, meldonium, manufactured in Lativa, is known to offer performance enhancing qualities including increased endurance, aerobic capabilities and increased rate of recovery. The drug has become increasingly popular among athletes, resulting in suspensions for athletes in other sports. In 2014, the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) started monitoring the non-FDA approved drug, but it wasn’t added to the list of banned substances until January 2016. In her statement, the Florida resident admitted to receiving an email detailing an updated list of banned drugs to avoid, meldonium included, but disregarded the contents of the email.
Since going public with the news, high-profile reactions to Sharapova’s admission have been mixed, though mostly positive and forgiving. In a tweet, fellow tennis player James Blake referred to Sharapova as “classy” for admitting a mistake. Tennis great Martina Navratilova cautioned everyone to “hold your horses” before rushing to judgement. Tennis analyst and coach Brad Gilbert called attention to Sharapova’s team for the “oversight.” And tennis pro, Ryan Harrison gave a “great champion” the benefit of the doubt, referring to it as an “honest mistake.” Fans have also praised Sharapova for facing the music and taking accountability for exercising poor judgement.
However, not all of Sharapova’s peers were supportive. On what appeared to be an isolated twitter island, three-time Grand Slam champion Jennifer Capriati torpedoed many scathing tweets towards Sharapova. In a now deleted tweet, the strong-opinionated Capriati lamented not having a “high priced team of drs that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.” She also added, “Im extremely angry and disappointed. I had to lose my career and never opted to cheat no matter what.i had to throw in the towel and suffer.” Retired since 2004, Capriati shared how injuries forced her to end her career earlier than preferred, a common struggle for many professional athletes. Like clockwork, Sharapova’s loyal fans came to her defense by attacking the Hall of Famer’s troubled past of drug abuse and shoplifting. But Capriati has a point.
Shoot the messenger, if you insist, but spare the message.
In the wake of sports’ doping scandal and Lance Armstrong, Ryan Braun, and Alex Rodriguez adamantly denying accusations only to later admit wrongdoing, the bar has been set incredibly low. Our society has bred a culture of scapegoating. The guilty party rather blame everyone else for their negative behavior until they’re all out of options. As such, Sharapova’s approach for immediately taking accountability is largely perceived as refreshing and mature. But a criminal pleading guilty doesn’t make him any less of a criminal.
The Russian athlete is currently ranked No. 7 in the world, but has been the highest-paid female athlete for the past decade, earning $29.7 million in 2015, according to Forbes. Major endorsers include Nike, American Express, Avon, Samsung, Tag Heuer, Porsche and Evian. As Capriati suggested, nearly $30 million of earnings allows Sharapova access to the most extensive and highly qualified support staff of coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, financial advisors, managers, and agents who are capable of circumventing a lagging drug-testing system. Her team is employed specifically for the purposes of growing and protecting her wealth, as well as helping her attain optimal health and physical performance. For more than a decade, Sharapova has been ingesting a drug for various undisclosed health conditions, despite its rumored performance enhancing health benefits. Not to mention, Latvian drugmakers suggest a recommended use of time of four-to-six weeks, not 10 years. That aside, was meldonium truly the only “legal” and effective drug available to treat her condition for all of these years? Sharapova is a world-class athlete, and whether the drug is legal or not, why even put her in a risky situation that makes her a ripe target for PED accusations, especially when, in 2014, it was announced the drug would be monitored by WADA?
While the International Tennis Federation (ITF) further investigates, a few of Sharapova’s sponsors have swiftly distanced themselves from the failed drug test taker. According to the BBC, Nike has already moved forward with suspending its $70 million relationship with Sharapova, while the investigation plays out. Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer has terminated negotiations to extend their partnership altogether and luxury carmaker Porsche has postponed any Sharapova brand activation until the situation shakes out. In 2014, she was announced as the brand’s first female ambassador.
The consequences of Sharapova and her team’s “oversight” could be extremely harsh and costly for the cash cow. There’s a possibility she could face as much as a four-year ban from the sport. Or, if it’s determined she doped unintentionally, she could return in months but still be forced to miss the next few major tournaments and possibly the Olympics too. Either way, it’s bad business, wreaking of suspicious activity by her team. But for the sake of Sharapova’s career, let’s hope they’re more competent in providing medical evidence to support her heart claims than they were in protecting her from this controversy.
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