Commentary

For now, Taurasi must endure wait

Will suspension come down, and if so, will it take WNBA star out of 2012 Games?

Originally Published: January 4, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

 Diana Taurasi Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesDiana Taurasi's samples tested positive for modafinil, which is used to counter excessive sleepiness.

Since the first report of a positive drug test surfaced before Christmas, we've wondered what the future holds for WNBA star Diana Taurasi. In the wake of reports Monday of a second positive test in Turkey for the stimulant modafinil, the speculation continues and the questions swirl.

As of Tuesday afternoon, neither Taurasi nor her attorney had confirmed the positive "B" sample. John Altavilla of the Hartford Courant reported that University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who is also the Team USA coach, said Taurasi told him she had not taken modafinil, which is used to counter excessive sleepiness.

A Turkish newspaper reported that two of Taurasi's teammates on the Fenerbahce club in Turkey, Penny Taylor and Hana Horakova, wouldn't take drug tests until they were assured the samples would be sent to a different lab. The one in Ankara, Turkey, that tested Taurasi's samples was -- for a two-month period in 2009 -- suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) before being accredited again.

If Diana Taurasi were to receive a six-month or longer suspension, she would be prohibited by the IOC from taking part in the 2012 London Games.

The WNBA has refrained from comment on Taurasi, except to release a statement through spokesman Ron Howard that the league is monitoring the situation. The WNBA is looking to replace Donna Orender as president, so it seems unlikely the league will take an active role in working with Taurasi during this process.

USA Basketball spokesman Craig Miller also opted for the "we're monitoring it" answer; suffice to say that organization is stunned to be dealing with this issue in regard to anyone, let alone one of its most high-profile female players -- one we've all assumed would compete in her third Olympics in 2012.

Everyone involved has been researching some dense, legalese documents provided by WADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

It appears a worst-case scenario for Taurasi would be a ban from the Turkish league, which would also impact her international standing in the eyes of WADA with regard to play in the WNBA.

According to WADA's code, if an athlete faces a ban from a league that is "signatory" to WADA -- as the Turkish Basketball Federation is -- but then goes to play in a non-signatory league -- such as the WNBA -- during that period of ineligibility, then the ban begins anew from the start of her participation in that other league.

Meaning, if Taurasi got a six-month suspension from her Turkish league but played in the WNBA before that time was up, her suspension restarts in the eyes of WADA. To meet WADA's requirements, she would need to serve the ban in full before beginning play in any league, even if it wasn't under WADA's sanction.

[+] EnlargeDiana Taurasi
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireDiana Taurasi has two WNBA titles, a WNBA MVP award, two Olympic gold medals and four Euroleague titles.

Further, in June 2008, the IOC ratified a new rule saying that any athlete who has served a drug-related ban of six months or longer in the four years prior to an Olympic Games will not be able to compete in that Olympiad. This is part of the IOC's "zero tolerance" stance on doping.

Meaning if Taurasi were to receive a six-month or longer suspension, she would be prohibited by the IOC from taking part in the 2012 London Games.

This IOC rule was spotlighted in October when the organization affirmed that U.S. sprinter LaShawn Merritt would not be allowed to defend his 2008 Olympic 400-meter title in the 2012 Games because he is serving a ban of 21 months for a positive drug test.

His ban began in October 2009 and will end in July 2011 -- a full year before the London Games begin. Still, he won't be able to participate in those Olympics, even though he can resume other international competition, such as in the 2011 world championship.

Merritt said the banned substances he tested positive for came from a so-called "male enhancement" product he bought at a convenience store and was not used to aid his track performance. An arbitration panel accepted his explanation, but it didn't make any difference. Banned substances are banned, period.

If that seems harsh -- not to mention humiliating for Merritt to go through publicly -- such is life in the sporting world's drug war.

Doping cases in sports often go like this: leaked information of a positive test, angry lawyer-spokesperson condemning the leak and promising vindication, the wait for the "B" sample, a positive result on that, questions about the validity of the lab/testing process, an athlete denying anything was taken on purpose, a hearing, a penalty. And then, in more extreme cases, an appellate process that goes to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

(The CAS was formed in 1984 as an international tribunal to decide sports-related disputes. It's based in Switzerland, with courts also in New York and Sydney, Australia. It's essentially a de facto "Supreme Court" for international sports.)

From the time an athlete is informed of a positive "B" sample, the process all the way through a CAS decision -- if it goes that far -- could take about eight months. That's according to a standard USADA estimate, although there is no hard and fast timeline.

During such a process, there will be speculation and attempts to figure out what happened and why. Ultimately, explanations or proposed justifications won't matter if an athlete is given a suspension.

[+] EnlargeDiana Taurasi
David Dow/NBAE/Getty ImagesDiana Taurasi helped Team USA win the world championship gold medal this past fall.

It might seem draconian in some cases, but every possible reason for why an athlete might have intentionally or inadvertently taken a banned substance has been heard worldwide. By now, governing bodies almost universally turn a deaf ear to any such explanations. If the process "convicts" you, the reasons don't really matter to those governing bodies that administer punishment.

But … what about in the so-called court of public opinion? Or how an organization goes forward and confronts issues if one of its athletes is suspended?

Again, we don't know how this situation with Taurasi will play out. She might be vindicated. But even if that happens, just the alleged use of a stimulant again spotlights the issue of WNBA players' potential weariness. Can the WNBA work more to help players maximize their income potential in the short window of an athletic career without pushing their bodies too hard competing nearly year-round?

Nearly seven years after winning a third consecutive NCAA championship, Taurasi has two WNBA titles, a WNBA MVP award, two Olympic gold medals and four Euroleague titles. She just helped Team USA win the world championship gold medal this past fall. She has had very little time away from competing since adolescence.

She has also dealt with the brutal murder of a man who was a friend/father figure to her -- Spartak team owner Shabtai von Kalmanovic -- and her DUI arrest. Both of those things happened in 2009, when the Mercury won the WNBA championship.

During this past WNBA season, Taurasi talked publicly about weariness, and how she might soon need to take some time off. Many people, myself included, speculated that she might not be able to bring herself to do it for very long. Taurasi is the original gym rat. I figured that she wouldn't stay away from the WNBA for any more than part of a season to rest.

Now, though, we must wait to see if Taurasi might not have much choice but to sit down for a while from competitive basketball.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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