CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There’s a scene in the film “A Few Good Men” in which Lieutenant Dave Spradling informs military lawyer Dan Kaffee that a young private named McDermott is going to be charged with possession of drugs and being under the influence on duty, drawing punishments resulting in loss of pay and rank, to which Kaffee defiantly objects on the grounds of a false positive.
Kaffee: “It was oregano, Dave. It was $10 worth of oregano.”
Spradling: “Yeah, but your client thought it was marijuana.”
Kaffee: “My client's a moron. That's not against the law.”
The exchange has for years elicited chuckles from moviegoers, but isn’t far from what we’ve recently witnessed on the PGA Tour. With commissioner Tim Finchem playing the role of Spradling, longtime member Vijay Singh sitting in as McDermott and oregano replaced with deer antler spray containing the previously banned IGF-1 chemical, this comedy of errors took a baffling twist on Tuesday.
Here’s the timeline that allowed Singh to sing: On Jan. 28, a Sports Illustrated article was released that quoted Singh as voluntarily having taken deer antler spray; one day later, he issued a statement saying he was unaware that it contained IGF-1; on Feb. 19, the PGA Tour handed Singh a sanction for his admission of guilt, despite not being able to properly test for the product; and on Feb. 26, Singh appealed the sanction.
All of which led to April 30, when WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) informed the PGA Tour that “the use of deer antler spray (which is known to contain small amounts of IGF-1) is not considered prohibited.” The result was that the Tour no longer deemed it fair to treat Singh’s use of deer antler spray as a violation, dropping its original sanction against the Hall of Fame member.
So, let’s review that one more time: Singh took a substance, later found out it was banned, admitted his guilt, was sanctioned as a penalty, appealed the sanction and was acquitted on all charges when WADA claimed the substance isn’t prohibited – even though he was originally sanctioned because he admitted guilt, not because he used it.
If your brain is spinning, don’t worry. I’ve got some $10 oregano I can sell you.
Or hell, just take some deer antler spray.
Not long after the decision was announced, one PGA Tour veteran stood on the Quail Hollow practice green and announced his intention to do exactly that.
“If there’s no suspension for deer antler spray,” the player said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “if they won’t pop you for anything even if you admit to it, if there’s absolutely no penalty that comes with taking it, I’m going on it as soon as I get home.
“My trainer said it makes you feel better, work out harder, feel stronger and recover faster. Why wouldn’t I take it? It’s a competitive advantage, as far as I’m concerned.”
Ask Finchem and he’ll maintain that the mystery medicine is legal, but can’t be used – or maybe it’s illegal and can be used. Even the commish sounded like he was struggling to grasp the situation during Tuesday’s announcement.
“It's not a violation of the Doping Code for you to use deer antler spray,” he said. “However, if you read the WADA language next Wednesday – if we get a test and there is a level set and we test for it – but we'll be very aggressive in letting people know when that test comes around.”
OK, so they can’t test for it, which makes it legal – unless they do test for it, which makes it illegal. But then again, they can’t test for it, because IGF-1 doesn’t show up in urine tests, which are the only ones conducted by the Tour.
Got all that?
Of course not. This is one of those rare scenarios in which even the loopholes have loopholes. Despite the fact that Singh was sanctioned not for his use of a substance containing IGF-1, but for his admission of unknowingly taking something illegal according to the Anti-Doping Policy, he was still issued a get-out-of-jail-free card thanks to the WADA ruling.
“Vijay wasn't assessed this action because he was negligent,” Finchem contested. “He wasn't assessed it because he made a mistake. He was assessed it because he violated the Doping Code, and the Doping Code is predicated on a list of substances. And we're now finding from WADA that that substance doesn't trigger a positive test to admission, so we have to respect that.”
Essentially, Finchem went from playing the part of Lieutenant Spradling – offering a punishment based on admitted guilt rather than actual malfeasance – to taking on the role of the military lawyer. If there are two sides to every story, he eventually found the one that ruled in favor of the defendant.
As for the rest of us, it’s like Kaffee, ably played by Tom Cruise, memorably shouted later in the movie: “I want the truth”
And by citing technicalities and loopholes, the PGA Tour is offering the same response Kaffee received: “You can’t handle the truth.”