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Semantics 101: TRT 'loophole' in MMA 'medical' cases must be plugged ... and then abolished

Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is nothing more than window dressing for medically-sanctioned steroid use. And that needs to end ... soon.

Photo by Esther Lin for

Let's talk about the power of language for a second, shall we?

We may not be conscious of it in our everyday lives, but language defines our reality. It's the mortar that holds all of us human bricks together in some semblance of an ordered society. Heck, we'd likely be nothing more than a bunch of blood-crazed hominids straight of the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" if we didn't posses the ability to communicate complex thoughts to one another.

While words can spark a fire in the mind that illuminates hidden truths, they can also be used to distort reality and blur our perception of the world around us.

Case in point: The verbal slight of hand going on when mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters such as Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen, among others, talk about testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).

You've probably heard it before: A fighter fails a performance enhancing drug (PED) test for steroids, only to later go on the defensive and claim his elevated testosterone levels were the result of TRT use.

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight and current Bellator fighter Lavar Johnson recently trotted out this excuse when asked about a test result that led to his ouster after a loss to Brendan Schaub at UFC 157.

Johnson postured (via "The MMA Hour") this past Monday:

"What happened was basically I was on TRT, I just didn't disclose it to the athletic commission. It was my mistake. I was taking such little amounts; me and my doctor didn't think anything was going to pop up, like it's no big deal. I guess any time you're taking any kind of testosterone, it's going to show on the test. So that's basically what I got popped for. You know, if you take steroids they'll suspend you for a year. I wasn't taking steroids. I was prescribed [TRT] by a doctor. They suspended me for nine months, and I ended up showing them my prescription from my doctor and everything. They ended up reducing it to six months. That was it."

If we take Johnson's words at face value, the whole thing seems like an unfortunate misunderstanding. "Big" was just taking medicine prescribed by a physician -- albeit one who for some strange reason gave him professional advice on whether or not to disclose his testosterone use to the UFC and the California State Athletic Commission; therefore, his only sin was failing to jump through the proper regulatory hoops before his fight with Schaub.

After all, it's not like he was on steroids or anything.

There's just one problem with Johnson's alibi, though: Synthetic testosterone is an anabolic steroid.

Johnson admitting to TRT use, but then claiming he wasn't taking steroids, is tantamount to a fighter producing a medical marijuana card after failing a drug test for pot and then trying to tell people he's not a stoner because all he does is eat a few THC-infused brownies now and then.

Except of course for one major difference: Unless we're counting the ability to scarf down a giant bag of Cheetos in one sitting as a sport, marijuana isn't a PED. No fighter in history has ever become stronger, faster or more explosive thanks to a steady diet of bong rips during training camp. No athlete has ever competed at an unfair disadvantage because his opponent is more likely to be featured on the cover of High Times than Black Belt or Men's Fitness.

Not so with steroids and other anabolic PEDs. The reason athletes shoot up with drugs like stanozolol, HGH, testosterone and in some cases even insulin is because those substances provide users with results that make a difference in competitive performance.

This includes testosterone prescribed by a doctor. Fighters who use synthetic testosterone under the supervision of a physician are required to keep their testosterone to epi-testosterone levels within the "normal" range, but they are by definition taking a performance enhancing drug (some athletic commissions define this "normal" range as 4:1 and others set it at a downright lenient 6:1, despite your average man on the street having a ratio of 1:1).

This past February, UFC president Dana White claimed his company was about to begin "testing the shit" out of TRT users in an attempt to catch fighters who were reaping of the rewards of juicing hard during training and then cycling off in time to pass a standard post-fight drug test.

So far though, the company has yet to bust anyone for abusing TRT before a fight.

Which begs the question: How did UFC Heavyweight and TRT recipient Ben Rothwell manage to fly under the radar during his training camp, but later get popped for elevated levels of testosterone following his UFC 164 victory over Brandon Vera last month?

If UFC indeed "tested the shit" out of Rothwell during the weeks leading up to his fight, but detected no abnormalities in his samples, that raises some serious concerns regarding the ability of fighters -- and the cagey doctors who often assist them -- to game the system and beat tests.

None of this should be taken as finger pointing or mud slinging at Johnson, Rothwell or any other fighters who have used TRT. It's important to point out that, until proven otherwise by a failed test, these athletes are merely playing by the rules as they currently stand.

The problem lies with the rules themselves, not the fighters who take advantage of them. In a sport as potentially hazardous as MMA, allowing athletes a loophole through which to use PED's doesn't just put the sanctity of home run records and MVP status at risk, it puts lives in danger. Sports fans may love history and stats, but no statistic is as valuable as the long-term health and safety of a human being.

And that's where the importance of language comes in. It's all too easy to take the words of TRT users at face value and thereby fall into a linguistic muddle where we think of anabolic steroids as an innocuous "medicine" in one context and a dangerous PED in another.

Maybe the first step to finally closing up the TRT loophole is for us to begin openly referring to it as what it truly is: Medically-sanctioned steroid use.

Sure sounds a lot less palatable than a set of euphemistic initials, doesn't it?

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