On Friday, a federal judge awarded $5.4 million to St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora. The judge ruled that a Florida supplement maker called Anti-Steroid Program, LLC had intentionally misrepresented a spray that Vobora had used and which had caused him to test positive for the steroid methyltestosterone under the NFL’s anti-doping policy. He served a four game suspension, without pay, and lost out on endorsement opportunities. But, Vobora says, the test cost him something much more valuable.
“I had to go through two years of being labeled as something I was not,” Vobora says. “It goes into my name, my family’s name, the name my kids will have and the pride that they’ll have to say, ‘Hey, my dad did it the right way.’”
The judgment is believed to be the largest of its kind, and U.S. District Court Judge Rodney W. Sippel awarded Vobora $2 million dollars for damages his reputation alone. Armed with the judge’s ruling, Vobora intends to petition the NFL to wipe the test from his record and restore his lost wages. But, he says it’s a “million dollar question” whether he’ll ever see the money from the supplement company.
“The money doesn’t matter,” Vobora insists. “When I hired my legal team I told them that if you’re in the for a grand paycheck then you’re in it for the wrong thing.”
Vobora’s story isn’t as unusual as you might think. In February, the Washington Post pored through the case files of the 250 athletes sanctioned by the US Anti Doping Agency since 2000. Half of those cases were described as “misfortunate,” “recreational,” or, like Vobora’s, “unwitting.”
As the head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab for 25 years, it was Dr. Don Catlin’s job to catch the cheaters, but he has great compassion for athletes who are caught up in the supplement industry’s deception. Not every supplement company is reputable and he says there’s no easy way to know how many supplements, vitamins, and other over-the-counter products are tainted with ingredients not on their label.
“There are thousands of supplements. So many of them come and they go,” Catlin says. “It’s a terrible problem.”
Vobora thought he did everything he could to research the supplement he took. He checked the label, asked teammates who were using the same product, and even called the NFL’s anti-doping hotline to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. Now, he says, he has all of his supplements tested, just to make sure they don’t contain anything they shouldn’t.
“It’s just worth it to have the peace of mind that you put in your body, is in fact, clean,” Vobora says.
None of this would have helped the WNBA’s Diana Taurasi, who was suspended by her Turkish team after a late December positive test.
She’s back on the court, playing for the Phoenix Mercury, and her record has been wiped clean after a lab in Turkey admitted to serious errors and declared that her positive test result was, in fact, negative.
Vobora and Taurasi were both represented by Howard Jacobs, an anti-doping case specialist who has also represented sprinter Marion Jones and cyclist Floyd Landis. Jacobs says he does his best to restore the reputations of his clients, but it’s not always easy.
“Who knows?” Jacobs says. “Two to three years from now if somebody Googles Diana Taurasi, which story is going to come up first? Is it going to be the positive test or the vindication?”
Meanwhile this summer, another high profile doping drama will play out. On July 2, Alberto Contador will begin his bid for a fourth Tour de France title. During his 2010 winning ride, Contador tested positive for clenbuterol in concentrations small enough that he was able to convince the Spanish federation that he had unknowingly ingested it in tainted meat. That ruling is being appealed by cycling’s governing body and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Until the case is resolved Contador is free to race, and perhaps win again, before it is even fully determined whether his 2010 title will stand.