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Technicalities unlikely to get Singh off the hook

Vijay Singh
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A furious 15 minutes has given way to silent gridlock. The wheels of justice are moving in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., but there will be nothing swift when it comes to Vijay Singh and his anti-doping snafu.

That’s not how these things work, not on the PGA Tour – where slow play is a way of life – or in the anti-doping halls of justice. As absolute as the anti-doping bylaws are, the intricate dance that follows any violation makes grass growing seem like a contact sport.

The Sports Illustrated article that initially linked Singh to the Ultimate Spray, which reportedly contains an insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) that is banned by the Tour and every other major sports league, was quickly followed by a public mea culpa that, at least to the doping world, was akin to a plea of no contest.

“While I have used deer antler spray, at no time was I aware that it may contain a substance that is banned under the PGA Tour anti-doping policy,” Singh said in the statement. “In fact, when I first received the product, I reviewed the list of ingredients and did not see any prohibited substances. . . . I have been in contact with the PGA Tour and am cooperating fully with their review of this matter.”

Last week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Singh tied for 50th place and he is in the field again this week at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera.

Singh met with Tour commissioner Tim Finchem last Wednesday at Pebble Beach and while what follows will be a closely-guarded secret, the process, at least according to the circuit’s policy, is as straightforward as it is structured.

According to the policy, Singh’s statement is tantamount to a positive test, or, according to Matt Lane, a Maine-based lawyer with the firm of Preti Flaherty who represents track and field athletes and has argued on behalf of athletes who have run afoul of various doping policies, it is considered a “non-analytical positive.”

Nor does it matter that the Tour, like most other major sporting leagues, doesn’t allow blood tests, which would be the only way to detect IGF-1.

“Now that you’ve admitted to taking a banned substance you have admitted to a doping violation,” Lane said.

In recent weeks it’s also been suggested that even if Singh used IGF-1 it would not have had any performance benefit.

Dr. Roberto Salvatori, an endocrinologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, told the Sun there is no medically valid way to deliver IGF-1 orally or in a spray. “If there were, a lot of people would be happy that they don't need to get shots anymore,” Salvatori said. “It’s just simply not possible for it to come from a spray.”

Many long-time Tour trainers echoed those comments last week, “You could get much more of a performance benefit from things you could buy legally, that aren’t on the banned list, from GNC,” one said.

That, however, would have no impact on Singh’s culpability, at least it would not under the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s policy, which the Tour used to model their program after back in 2008 when the circuit began testing.

By way of example Lane points out that Olympic athletes are regularly sanctioned for testing positive for marijuana.

“No one is going to argue that if you smoke pot you are going to run the 100 meter faster,” Lane said. “You can take a lot of things that don’t have any performance enhancing properties, for a long time Sudafed was on the banned list. It doesn’t really matter if it’s truly a performance enhancing.”

All of this could factor in as mitigating circumstances if sanctions are ever doled out, which according to the policy could be up to a one-year suspension and up to a $500,000 fine. But as a matter of determining guilt, intent has little influence in the anti-doping realm.

At this point it seems Singh’s primary defense would be to have the spray analyzed by the Tour. If it is found not to contain IGF-1, or any other banned substance, there would be no violation.

On the company’s website that sells the spray, however, IGF-1 is listed as an active ingredient in the spray twice and in an August 2011 advisory via the green sheet, which is circulated to players monthly, the Tour warned of a potential violation.

“The PGA Tour has learned that a supplement product marketed as ‘deer antler spray’ contains a prohibited substance under the PGA Tour anti-doping program,” the warning read.

“Deer antler contains IGF-1 which naturally occurs in the human body and is a growth factor, like human growth hormone. IGF-1 protects cartilage, promotes the growth of bone cells, and facilitates recovery. It is universally banned in all sports.”

Unless Singh can prove there was no banned substance in the spray he used, the question, at least to Lane, moves to the sentencing phase, where intent and other mitigating factors are a consideration.

“The question is what would (the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) do?” Lane said. “If it’s USADA they will seek a ban. It’s Law & Order time, they will try to negotiate a plea bargain.”

Based on the Tour’s anti-doping policy following discovery of a violation, either by a positive test or non-analytical positive, the circuit is mandated to notify the player who has seven days to provide a written explanation. If a sanction is issued the player then has seven days to appeal the ruling and a hearing is held within 45 days.

If the process goes the distance according to policy, and Singh appeals, a hearing could occur in early April which could place a possible final ruling, which under the policy would be made public, sometime around The Masters, which Singh won in 2000.

For a circuit often criticized for slow play the wheels of anti-doping justice fittingly dovetail with the languid status quo. Considering what’s at stake that seems about right.