Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 9, 2013

Singh’s Silly Suit, And Losers All Around

This probably won’t go down as the best idea that Vijay Singh ever had. On the eve of the Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s annual showcase event at the quirky TPC Sawgrass course, Singh filed suit against the Tour, seeking damages for severe emotional distress brought on by the Tour’s handling of doping allegations against him. A statement released by his attorneys said that the 50-year old Fijian was seeking to “reclaim his reputation and hold the PGA Tour responsible for its unwarranted effort to suspend Singh for his use of deer antler spray.”

For Singh the journey to suing a Tour on which he has won 34 events including 3 majors began in January, when he agreed to be interviewed by a Sports Illustrated reporter for a story about an obscure company named Sports With Alternatives to Steroids (SWATS) and its owner Mitch Ross. SWATS was producing and marketing various products which the company claimed were all natural and entirely legal performance boosters. Among these was “The Ultimate Spray,” promoted as an anti-inflammatory and immune system booster, the primary ingredient of which was an extract from the velvet of deer antlers. Singh, who in recent years has fought chronic back and knee pain, was tipped to the product by his caddie in December 2012. At least according to the claims in his court filing, he took pains to make certain that none of the ingredients listed on the spray’s bottle appeared on the banned substances list of the Tour’s Anti-Doping Program.

While the SI story, timed to coincide with the Super Bowl, focused on the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis’s alleged attempts to obtain the spray, Singh was one of several other athletes mentioned in the article. Controversy quickly ensued, because deer antler spray contains minute amounts of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), which is included on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances. Since the PGA Tour relies on the WADA list of illegal performance enhancers for its Anti-Doping Program, as soon as SI published its story it appeared that Singh was in trouble.

What followed were weeks of silence from both Singh and the PGA Tour, punctuated by occasional media stories speculating on what might be going on behind the scenes. Based on the narrative of events included in the golfer’s court filing, we now know that he provided a sample of The Ultimate Spray to Tour officials, who sent if off to a lab at UCLA to be tested; while at the same time conducting drug tests on Singh, which came back negative. The analysis of the spray showed no sign of anabolic steroids, but trace amounts of IGF-1. In mid-February the Tour informed Singh in writing that he was suspended from playing for 90 days, but Singh exercised his right to appeal the suspension, which kept it from going into effect. That appeal was scheduled to be heard by an arbiter earlier this week, but just days beforehand the PGA Tour announced that it was dropping the disciplinary proceedings against Singh. In announcing the decision to drop proceedings that golf fans didn’t know were taking place Commissioner Tim Finchem said that WADA had advised the Tour that it no longer considered deer antler spray to be a problem because it contained such tiny amounts of IGF-1.

In his lawsuit Singh alleges that the decisions by WADA and the PGA Tour were in response to scientific studies which he commissioned and submitted as part of his appeal, work that he believes should have been done by the Tour. If his allegations are correct Singh would seem to have a point, and certainly the entire episode has highlighted the many weaknesses in golf’s efforts to police its players. The most glaring hole in the Tour’s current program is the fact that it only tests players during tournaments. Since most players take several scheduled breaks during the year, often skipping two, three or even four weeks in a row, there is ample opportunity for a would-be cheat to benefit from any number of banned substances and have any trace washed clean out of his system before facing a possible drug test. In addition the Tour administers only urine tests, while many of today’s most sought-after performance enhancers can be detected only by blood tests.

But even if one accepts all of Singh’s assertions about what the PGA Tour should have done, it’s still a stretch to see how he has been left “humiliated, shamed, ridiculed, scorned and emotionally distraught.” If anything, Tour officials have been subjected to criticism since January because of their refusal to comment on the ongoing proceedings. Yet that policy of silence left Singh a lot less humiliated than if they had leaked news of the decision to suspend him. At the same time Singh’s own stonewalling of the press since the SI story was published means that whatever ridicule has been directed towards him is in some measure a product of his refusal to defend himself. There is also the minor factual matter that this whole affair began because Singh volunteered the news that he had spent $9,000 on the promise that an extract from the velvet of immature deer antlers would make his back and knees feel better.

The media reaction to Singh’s lawsuit was itself a reminder of the precarious relationship between sports stars and the scribes who cover them. Vijay Singh is in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. But it’s been more than four years since his last Tour win, and he has always had a prickly relationship with the press.  Clearly sensing an opportunity for payback against a fading star, more than a few members of the media chose this week to get even for past slights, either real or imagined. A commentary at one golf website called the lawsuit “Singh’s galling gambit” and suggested that “even if he didn’t dope, he has proven he knows how to act like one.” Another pundit called Singh “as lovable as poison ivy.” And in almost every story there were reminders of the allegation that a young Singh doctored his scorecard at an Asian Tour event in 1985, an event that one writer suggested has “haunted” Singh throughout his career. If it has, no doubt the reason is because many members of the golf media can’t write a story about Singh without including a reference to that now almost three-decade old event.

One of the most reliable rules in writing about sports is that every story has identifiable winners and losers. But this sorry tale, which includes a major professional sport with a woeful anti-doping program, a one-time hero in decline who seems incapable of accepting any responsibility for his own actions, and a vengeful media overly anxious to extract its pound of flesh, seems populated only by the latter.

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