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UFC hires Jeff Novitzky: Be careful what you wish for

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Earlier this week, the UFC hired Jeff Novitzky as Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance. According to a UFC press release, Novitzky’s duties include “[spearheading] the development of the organization’s clean initiative education program designed to ensure that every athlete competes with natural ability on an even playing field.” That’s a long-winded way of saying he was brought in to stop all the doping. UFC COO Lawrence Epstein says they are “asking Jeff to be a lot more than our drug-testing guy” as the head of their “athlete health and performance division” in which “the elimination of performance-enhancing drugs” is only one part of creating a level playing field.

What are these other parts of creating a level playing field? I don’t know, and I’m not sure how Novitzky qualifies for the position. He graduated from San Jose State University in 1991 with a degree in accounting. He’s spent his professional career as an investigator for the Internal Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration. He has no experience “creating and implementing” a drug program, which the UFC press release highlights as a major part of his job description.

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Novitzky likely qualifies for his role in government investigations against BALCO and Lance Armstrong. His efforts helped put away BALCO founder and president for four months, (“unofficially”) blackball Barry Bonds from baseball, and strip Lance Armstrong of seven Tour de France titles. Novitzky is a name the UFC can point to and say, “Look at how much we care about changing the culture of doping in our sport.”

There are those buying right into that narrative, but Jeff Novitzky should be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Susan Illston, a United States District Judge, “condemned the tactics and questioned the candor” of Novitzky during the Bonds perjury trial. Novitzky sought out a narcotics agent to go undercover at Bonds’ gym. He dug through BALCO’s garbage for evidence. Three district judges and one appellate judge concluded that his methods violated the fourth amendment. Novitzky also likely created and leaked a list of baseball players who failed what were supposed to be anonymous drug tests in 2003. That is illegal. Then-Major League Baseball Player Association representative Elliot Peters probably understated things when he called Novitzky a “zealous guy.”

This should concern anyone who believes in due process. This should also concern UFC fighters, who now have to deal with a man who has a history of doing whatever it takes to “get his man.” It appears that Novitzky – and perhaps those who support his hiring – believes that the ends justify the means.

But the Novitzky hire and the impending drug policy raises a further issue about the legality of the UFC unilaterally testing its own fighters. UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told the Sports Business Journal, “We needed to stop having academic debates on the legalities of our contracts and just go do this.”

The UFC already took steps to enact their own drug testing last April. That came to an end in October following the Cung Le HGH fiasco. It seems like having those “academic debates on the legalities of our contracts” might need to be a priority.

Specifically, though, the drug testing policies of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League are collectively bargained. They are collectively bargained because the athletes are employees with union representation. UFC fighters have no union, and they are independent contractors, not employees.

Imagine hiring a plumber. He stops by your house to inspect the problem. He quotes you an estimate, which you find agreeable. Just when it looks like a deal is in place, you mention that you’d like the plumber to take a drug test before starting his work. Your plumber is likely to laugh in your face and go on his way.

Fighters would likely (or should, anyway) laugh in the UFC’s face as well, especially considering the fact that they are already drug tested as part of their licensing requirements with the state. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have the same leverage as your plumber, who can likely find equivalent work without much effort. Yes, MMA fighters have numerous promotional options to fight under, but all are clearly a step below both in terms of prestige and long-term earnings potential.

And that’s where we stand. The UFC has just hired a borderline criminal to help draw up and run a quasi-legal drug testing program. But go ahead and celebrate, because the drugs are going to be out of the sport.

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