A little learning is a dang’rous thing;/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.—Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism”
Different tennis constituencies—including players, the ITF, and sports journalists—have work to do in order to avoid or better respond to similar situations in the future. Many discussions of the case have focused on Troicki’s seeming naiveté or ignorance of the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme, suggesting the problem could have been avoided if only he’d known and followed “the rules”—that is, had he not sought an exemption from them in the first place. This “lesson” identifies and discusses a number of other things that the case reveals need, at minimum, review.
The 2013 anti-doping cases, as well as responses to them, have revealed that some—perhaps many—players don’t know as much as they should about a key aspect of their professional lives. (We assume they know the rules of the game itself, but not even that is always so, as USA Today’s Doug Robson discovered last year at Indian Wells.) A few players’ public statements on the issue, including Troicki’s, also raised eyebrows— whether with confusion, concern, surprise, or disapproval. While top players, especially, have certain media obligations during tournaments, no player is required to answer any specific question from a journalist. Particularly if asked about a controversial subject, responding with some version of “No comment” is always an option. Players choosing to speak on the topic du jour—be it time limits between serves, equal prize money, or anti-doping policy and procedure—would do themselves a favor to know whereof they speak.
● When in doubt about tennis basics, players—as well as fans, media, & officials—can always consult the ITF’s various rule-books.
● Regarding the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP), this “wallet card” outlining the essentials is a must-have for both players and their team members (ahem, Jack Reader). New in 2014: a “wallet card” for mobile phones.
● That players need to understand the TADP requirements, familiarize themselves with standard procedures, and know which substances are prohibited—as well as, more broadly, what constitutes a rule violation—seems like a no-brainer. At the same time, I think it’s a bit much to expect players to have read the entire TADP document or to know the sanctions for rule violations they have no intention of committing. (I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you how much speeding tickets cost in my city, though I exceed the limit knowingly and on the regular.)
● As important as players’ TADP responsibilities are their rights. Note that there are a number of valid reasons for a player to delay reporting to—or temporarily leave—the Doping Control Station (DCS).
● Significantly, the ITF’s sheet on players’ rights & responsibilities is missing one key point listed on WADA’s Doping Control Form: “If you are an athlete with a disability, [you have the right to] request modifications to the sample collection procedure” (4; I discuss why this might be so in section 4).
Viktor Troicki, were he more familiar with his rights or had he consulted his wallet card (what are the chances that players bring their wallets to the DCS after a match?), may have been able to remind the DCO of the following: “Provided that [players] are chaperoned, [they] may delay reporting to and/or leave the DCS for one of the following activities: …obtaining medical treatment… [and] other exceptional circumstances, which must be approved by the DCO.” Even if Troicki wasn’t aware of this right, the DCO—noting “he did not look well; he looked tired and weak,” having been informed of his needle phobia, and hearing his concerns about giving blood in this condition—certainly could have sought assistance herself or recommended he seek medical attention from another doctor (11I).
In fact, the CAS addressed this possibility both directly and indirectly. First, they included the following detail, missing from the IADT report, in their overview of the case’s “factual background”: the DCO’s supervisor, when informed by e-mail of what had happened with Troicki that afternoon, responded by asking, “Did you call for the ATP doctor on site?” (3.21). Comparing the CAS decision with sections 18-19 & 21 of the IADT document, it becomes clear that the latter presents the matter as if the player’s actions, not the DCO’s, were in question. After hearing from her supervisor, the DCO made several inquires about whether Troicki had subsequently gone to see a doctor, and even suggested to the ATP supervisor that it “was not good for him” that he hadn’t. (There’s no indication where that idea originated, but one effect of it in the IADT text is to imply that neither player nor coach took Troicki’s condition seriously. There are certainly other ways of interpreting the flurry of activity on the DCO’s part, as well as the fact that Troicki wasn’t the one who took the initiative to follow up with officials the next morning.) Second, they note that they would expect a DCO to “have been provided with the telephone numbers of relevant tournament personnel she could have contacted to assist her in such a situation” (9.28.1). Unfortunately, she wasn’t; nor did her office have internet access. Third, their conclusion observes that the panel “finds surprising that there is no provision in the [TADP] requiring a DCO to call for the attendance of an ATP representative (for example an ATP doctor) in any case where an athlete refuses or fails to submit a sample collection, for medical or other reasons, or to remind the athlete about his or her rights and duties under the Programme” (10.2). Not incidentally, while both the IADT and CAS decisions make numerous references to requirements and responsibilities, this sentence contains the only mention of a player’s rights in either document.
The CAS analysis confirms that the DCO didn’t clearly articulate the possible—indeed, likely, if not certain—consequences of failing to submit a sample to Troicki or his coach (see sections 9.9-14 and 9.28). What the the arbitration panel didn’t do, in my view, is press further regarding other ways the DCO and Troicki could have resolved their impasse. Specifically, they didn’t seem to challenge a rather beside-the-point comment from the DCO: that “the DCO and his or her assistant cannot leave the DCS” (9.28.1). As the TADP materials establish, the player may temporarily leave the DCS, as long as he/she is chaperoned. As it happens, Roger Federer provided an example of such “exceptional circumstances” in London: once, after being selected to provide a urine sample, he couldn’t “go to the toilet.” “It’s happened to me one time,” he shared; “Then the [chaperone] has to stay with you all night. It just becomes really complicated.” (Maybe it’s me, but that sounds more awkward than complicated. Was Mirka there, too?) In the case at hand, the player or his coach could have gone to fetch an ATP doctor—whether to provide treatment or to assist with the drawing of blood. And had Troicki been accompanied by a chaperone over night, his blood test the next morning may have meant much more than it did. So, while it may be true that the DCO didn’t have the authority to tell Troicki if his medical condition was a “compelling justification” for skipping a blood test altogether, it’s not the case that players aren’t ever allowed to delay giving samples. Unless I’m misinterpreting the TADP, that is, both Troicki and the DCO had other—likely mutually agreeable—options that fell within the rules.
As for players speaking to media on anti-doping issues, I was impressed by the measured comments in press from most who were asked about the subject. (Reactions from the week after the two ATP suspensions were announced are here.) However, when addressing the Troicki case, specifically, I think a few players erred in saying too much on the basis of too little knowledge. For instance, Federer’s comments in Shanghai and London suggest he wasn’t following the case very closely (which is, of course, his prerogative). His general responses wouldn’t be a problem in the least if those quoting them noted that they were just that—general responses. Granted, it doesn’t make for great copy to quote the GOAT saying, “Uhm, look, I don’t know the conversation, the situation, exactly what happened” or “Honestly, I don’t talk a whole lot with other players about it.” But it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge that he is speaking largely from personal experience, so that statements like “I believe whatever [the CAS] decided on” should be taken with a grain of salt, since they’re not coming from someone who has spent much (if any) time looking over their decision.
On the other end of the spectrum from the diplomatic Swiss is Djoković, who was arguably following the Troicki case too closely and not closely enough at the same time. What I mean is that Novak, while proving to be a loyal friend and passionate advocate of players’ rights, did not always establish himself a master of objectivity or reading comprehension. This last may be a bit unfair, as I doubt Djoković had time to read a 31-page document (in its entirety or closely) before making his “statement” following a match with Federer the day of the CAS decision. But, in both London and Beijing a month earlier, Novak made what I think are ill-advised, even irresponsible, comments about the DCO in Troicki’s case, saying “she was lying a lot” and accusing her of “negligence and… unprofessionalism.” Though I appreciate that he was speaking from the heart, and believe he had plenty of worthwhile criticisms of both the procedure in this case and larger issues of tennis politics, his legitimate points were somewhat overshadowed by the less accurate, more sensational (and thus headline-grabbing) ones.
As Troicki’s case makes abundantly clear, the ITF—and, specifically, the IDTM firm to whom they’ve outsourced their drug-testing efforts—needs to improve sample-collecting protocols to decrease the possibility that their staff are muddying, rather than clarifying, the waters. Comparing the IADT and CAS decisions, it’s tough not to be struck by the different pictures they paint. Little of this helps the ITF’s credibility with regard to anti-doping efforts.
● The CAS panel’s analysis (especially sections 9.7-14 and 9.27-28) and conclusion merit review by everyone involved in the TADP.
● ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti is certainly right to encourage interested parties to read the CAS decision, and probably isn’t wrong that some “critics of Viktor Troicki’s doping suspension have misunderstood” aspects of it. At the same time, I doubt it’s true that all disagreement with the decision is due to “a problem of words”—for instance, a failure to grasp the difference between “no fault” and “no significant fault.” Ricci Bitti might earn some credit with players by indicating a willingness to listen to critics’ legitimate concerns about how this case was handled by both the IDTM representative and the IADT, in particular.
● The ITF has already indicated procedures are “likely to be changed in 2014 to say that, where a player refuses or fails to provide a sample (as Mr. Troicki did), the doping control officer should try to offer the player an opportunity to speak to the event supervisor or referee to confirm the player’s responsibilities under the program.” Hopefully, this change will also mention that players should be given a chance to speak to a doctor or other advocate—not merely rule-enforcers—before or during DCS visits.
● From manager Stuart Miller on down, those involved in any aspect of the TADP might review players’ rights under the program (elaborated upon in Appendix 4 of the TADP).
● The ITF leadership could also stand to reflect a bit more on the fact that the stated purpose of the TADP is not only “to maintain the integrity of tennis” but also “to protect the health and rights of tennis players participating in Covered Events” (1.1).
In reading over the relevant documents, I didn’t find a lot of evidence to support the idea that the DCO in this case did much to “to protect the health and rights” of a player who was physically ill, experiencing anxiety about his needle procedure, and looking to avoid a full-blown panic attack and/or fainting episode when he entered the DCS. On the one hand, I don’t blame her: regardless of whether the Blood Collection Officer holds a medical degree, it’s not actually the DCO’s job to treat patients. Instead, as their titles— emphasizing “control” and “collection”—indicate, they are officers of the “law” that is the TADP: specifically, the World Anti-Doping Code (see 1.2, 1.7). Further, if this DCO was less than adept in handling a needle-phobe, she is hardly unique in this and likely didn’t get much help from the player, as I’ll discuss in the next section. On the other hand, while they are not technically doctors caring for patients but officers implementing (and, to some degree, enforcing) the “law” upon its “subjects,” BCOs are still operating in the guise of health-care professionals. The procedure they are responsible for isn’t an administrative transaction (like filling in a form) but one involving fairly intimate contact with real—and sometimes vulnerable—human bodies. So, in cases like this, as the CAS suggested, it’s reasonable to expect the DCO to seek assistance from another doctor on site or at least advise the player to get medical attention elsewhere since he/she is not in a position to provide it. Neither of these things happened in Monte Carlo last April.
Nor did I find evidence in the IADT or CAS decisions to indicate that they gave much thought to the matter of Troicki’s “health and rights.” Although both groups accepted his needle phobia diagnosis as a fact, it was barely discussed in their decisions. They did acknowledge Viktor’s “stress” as a mitigating factor when it came to determining his penalty (46I). But they didn’t, in my view, take it sufficiently seriously when addressing whether he had a “compelling justification” for committing the rule violation in the first place or in considering how the ITF, going forward, might adjust their procedures to accommodate needle-phobic players—specifically, with reference to the part of the TADP that addresses, in a limited way, “modifications for athletes with disabilities” (Appendix 4, section 5.4.1 and Annex B). That Troicki’s preexisting medical condition played a significant role in the interaction between him and the DCO would be self-evident to anyone who understands what needle phobia entails. But maybe that’s precisely the problem: it’s not obvious that the anti-doping authorities involved—from the DCO on up to the two doctors who sat on the IAD tribunal—had the requisite knowledge.
Nevertheless, the IADT felt free to repeatedly opine on Troicki’s “state of mind” (50I). Most notably, they judged his credibility as a witness, assessed how “reasonable” he was on the day in question (39, 44I), and concluded that “Mr Troicki acted in the way that he did in consequence of the stress that he was under—in this case, as a result of a combination of his physical condition and his panic at the prospect of giving blood” (46I). Call me crazy, but it would be my preference that those using “a little psychoanalysis”—as Tignor describes the Tribunal’s process in deciding to accept the DCO’s account of events over Troicki’s—be trained in the field and experienced with the medical condition in question. (The IADT members in this case are specialists in sports medicine, physiotherapy, and anti-doping; as far as I’m aware, no psychologist provided testimony.)
Tennis Experts Many of those addressing anti-doping policy and procedure need to take greater care with such work, starting with reading the IADT or CAS rulings before commenting on specific cases. While I’m using “experts” to refer to journalists above all, I also have in mind tv commentators, bloggers, and those with expert or informational power, if not formal positions, in the tennis world. (Among the second group, for example, I include the anonymous blogger who runs the THASP site and Richard Ings, the former umpire who headed the ATP’s anti-doping program a decade ago, whose Twitter feed focuses on “drugs in sport”). The expert’s professional position—and social media platform—brings with it some responsibilities. Since informing readers is first among them, it seems worth double-checking to see that one has gotten the facts right, quoted sources accurately, provided relevant context, and not left out any important details.
For what it’s worth, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to wade through lengthy documents about the Troicki case. After all, not every tennis writer relishes close-reading texts or has a law degree (though at least three North Americans—Courtney Nguyen, Kamakshi Tandon, and Jon Wertheim—do). But if one is going to discuss it in print, can’t we agree there’s a minimum amount of preparation one should do? After all, an opinion unsupported by a decent grasp of the issues is next to worthless to tennis fans, who can access the reports themselves.
Before proceeding, let me be clear that I don’t think any journalist discussing the case deliberately or maliciously distorted it to favor either Troicki’s or the ITF’s claims. Repeatedly, though, writers got aspects of the case wrong—or not quite right.
1. A BBC article on the case claimed that “two independent panels have concluded that [the DCO] did inform the Serb of the consequences of leaving the anti-doping room without first providing a blood sample.” This is simply not so. The IADT accepted the ITF’s argument that the DCO hadn’t given Troicki “unequivocal assurance, without any qualification” that “he definitely would not be sanctioned if he did not give blood on that occasion” (39, 44I; my emphasis). Further, the CAS agreed with them that the DCO a) told Troicki that she did not have the authority to determine if his reason for delaying the blood test was valid, and b) eventually got him to sign the BCF acknowledging awareness that his behavior “may be treated as an anti-doping rule violation” (12I, my emphasis; the corresponding phrases in 9.29C note that he “could” or “might face sanctions”). However, they were quite critical of a number of things the DCO “did and did not do,” going so far as to say that she’d “failed to heed [IDTM] recommendations” that might have prevented Troicki from exiting the DCS believing there would be no problem (9.11, 9.13C). Notably, there was no evidence that the DCO told Troicki that the standard penalty for breaking the rule in question is a two-year suspension. Had she done so, there would have been no need for this information to be conveyed in a footnote of the IADT ruling (40I) and, needless to say, no reason for the CAS to make the recommendations they did (10.2-3C).
2. Predictably, Serbian media were most interested in Troicki’s version of events and the reactions of their other top players. Unfortunately, there was widespread failure to note that short of the CAS overturning the IADT decision, the one-year mandatory minimum ban was the best possible outcome for Troicki. Nor did local journalists correct Djoković’s assertion that his teammate’s not being allowed to enter Belgrade Arena during the final stages of Davis Cup was “not a normal situation.” Who knows if ITF spokesman Nick Imison’s idea of circulating hard-copy excerpts of the relevant policy for suspended players resulted in more accurate coverage of the matter; after all, a headline quoting Novak—“Troicki’s not a terrorist or murderer”—draws more eyeballs.
3. In various English-language outlets, including Sports Illustrated, Troicki’s reasons for seeking to avoid or delay having blood drawn were understated, with writers saying Troicki didn’t “give a sample because he said he felt unwell,” “was ill on the day,” or was “too sick.” (In fairness, both Nguyen and Wertheim had mentioned Troicki’s fear of needles in earlier posts on the topic, although only the former used the clinical term “phobia.”) Still other articles, while raising plenty of good points about the case, didn’t mention Troicki’s mental &/or physical condition—only that he did “not want to take a [blood] test.” Such oversights seem telling, even if it’s not obvious what they’re saying.
4. Unsurprisingly, then, top players also described aspects of the case in incomplete, if not entirely inaccurate, ways. For example, Federer: “I do believe that when you are requested for a sample, you have to give the sample. It doesn’t matter how bad you feel. I’m sorry.” As I’ll elaborate in the next section, “feeling bad” doesn’t adequately capture what’s involved during a needle-phobic episode; nor does it address the other factors contributing to the misunderstanding between Troicki and the DCO.
At the risk of alienating my friends at Tennis magazine, I’ll single out their colleague Pete Bodo for not doing his homework before weighing in on the matter. Focusing on three sentences of his “Three Controversies” post should be enough to make my point. Bodo offers: “Personally, I have some trouble buying the idea that a strapping, 6’3” professional athlete in the full bloom of health is so squeamish that he can’t give blood.” I’ll get to the most problematic parts of this comment in the next section. Suffice it to say here that anyone checking Troicki’s ATP profile will learn he’s 6’4”; further, witnesses to the day in question attested to his lack of a rosy glow (including the DCO, who had nothing to gain by doing so). It may seem petty or pedantic to call attention to minor errors like this, but my motivation is a serious one. If readers can’t count on writers to get basic, easily verifiable facts right, how can we trust them on more complicated matters of interpretation or argument?
“What happened to Troicki was a manifestation of the drug-testing protocol working exactly as it should,” Bodo continues. Other than Stuart Miller and other ITF executives looking to save face in the wake of a major controversy, how many people familiar with the case would endorse this claim? Bodo is, of course, welcome to disagree with Djoković—and to agree with the CAS and virtually everyone in the anglophone media—about whether Troicki had a “compelling justification” for failing to give blood when selected. But even those who take no issue with the ultimate outcome of the investigation and appeal are likely aware of the problems with the ITF’s testing procedure illuminated by Troicki’s case. Can’t or don’t want to read the full CAS report before pressing “publish”? That’s ok. You could skip ahead to its conclusion and peruse two paragraphs to discover this statement is off-base. If you have a bit more time on your hands (say, enough to read five pages), you could look over the measured criticisms of the process in section 9, too. For that matter, you could read Steve Tignor’s analysis of the decision, posted the day before his colleague’s piece.
According to Bodo, the ITF’s testing protocols operate by way of the “same rules for all, zero tolerance for cheats or excuse making.” This statement is fine—in the abstract. But how well does it apply to Troicki’s case, in particular? Not even the ITF tried to prove that the Serbian player was a “cheat.” Those who read the CAS analysis know the panel agreed with the IADT’s finding that “there is no suggestion that this failure or refusal [to give blood] was in fact prompted by the player’s desire to evade the detection of a banned substance in his system” (9.28.4). Was Troicki “making excuses” on that April day or engaged in “outright lying” subsequently? Interestingly enough, all four aspects of his argument for “compelling justification” (a pre-existing needle phobia, physical illness, a panicked state of mind, and the DCO’s lack of clarity) were either accepted as fact or granted considerable weight by the CAS. They’re the reasons, after all, that his appeal was partially upheld. Lastly, is it even a good idea for the system to treat a player with a needle phobia the same way that it treats a player without one—that is, to fail to acknowledge or accommodate a disability? The criticisms Djoković and others have made is not of a rule, per se, but of how it was and should be implemented in practice. In sum, Bodo’s presentation of the case leaves a lot to be desired and leads us to lesson 2: feel free to admit when there’s something you don’t know. (Return to the discussion overview here.)