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Sherk Steroid Ruling Captures Worst of Both Worlds

By Ben Fowlkes

Most of the time, I’m all for compromise. It’s part of what separates us from the beasts of the field, and it’s what helps us decide what to watch on TV. But the California State Athletic Commission’s decision on Sean Sherk’s steroid case, to me that’s the worst kind of compromise you can make: the kind that pleases nobody.

Let’s think about this thing for a minute. After initially testing positive for steroids following his UFC lightweight title defense against Hermes Franca in July, Sherk was suspended for a year and fined $2,500. He swore he was innocent, so he appealed. He even got himself some real legal counsel and filed some real legal briefs, which the CSAC failed to read in time to make a ruling. Now, after delays and setbacks and finally booking a room to hold the hearing in, they have decided to cut his suspension in half, but uphold the fine.

Which means…what, exactly? He’s only a little bit guilty?

Maybe I’m the only one struggling with this, but I can’t decide what this decision is supposed to mean. When it comes to the question of whether a guy used steroids there has to be a yes or no answer. Either you believe the initial test results, or you believe Sherk’s assertion that it’s a false positive. If you think he’s guilty, why would you cut his suspension? If you think he’s innocent, why would he be punished at all?

There’s no such thing as being kind of on steroids. It’s not as if he was in a room at a party where a bunch of people were all doing steroids and he got a contact high. Either he did it or he didn’t. The CSAC has to make up their minds. Cutting the suspension from a year to six months makes it seem like they’re either rewarding him for putting up with their disorganized appeals process, or else they’re hoping to appease him and the UFC at the same time in hopes that the whole thing will just go away.

If anything, the latter seems most plausible. It’s not hard to imagine the CSAC — perhaps at once realizing that they don’t want to alienate the UFC and at the same time not wanting to admit they were completely wrong and thus undermine their own drug-testing system — deciding on this shortened sentence as an offering to Dana White. He gets his lightweight champ back in January, plus a plausible excuse for not stripping him of the title, and they get to say they’re tough on steroids.

But really, this just seems like a half-measure. I would respect them more if they made one decision, whatever it may be, and stuck with it. Sherk says he isn’t about to let it go, which makes me think more and more that he may actually be innocent. As easy as it would be to say the guy nicknamed “The Muscle Shark” is juicing, the fact that he’s so adamant about pursuing this is very telling.

It’s like one of my favorite reality TV shows, A&E’s The First 48. In the course of their homicide investigations, every once in a while they end up accusing an innocent man of murder. If you haven’t seen the show, believe me when I say that it’s not hard to tell who is innocent and who is guilty based on their reactions to the accusation. The innocent man gets indignant. He yells at you and gets in your face. The guilty guy mumbles into his shoulder and fidgets with a styrofoam coffee cup.

Sherk isn’t fidgeting right now. He’s yelling. I’m starting to hope he really is innocent, and if he is I hope he doesn’t let it go. The big question now is what the UFC will do about Sherk, about the lightweight title, and about the two other guys scheduled to fight for an interim belt in the same month he becomes eligible again. If they don’t strip him, that fight makes no sense except as a number one contender match (which is basically what it is anyway). If they do strip him, that fight has to be for the real title.

It puts Dana White in a tough spot, forcing him to side with the CSAC, who he probably hopes to work with in the future, or with Sherk, who he thinks of as a friend.

Whatever the UFC decides to do, somebody is going to get upset. But then that’s what happens when you make tough decisions. Maybe we should explain that to the CSAC. Somebody book a conference room.

Ben Fowlkes is the publisher of the MMA blog, The Fighting Life, as well as a contributor to CBS Sports and the editor of the International Fight League’s official site,