7 August 2019

The vilification of DJ Cooper over a hCG positive

Depending on what you have read this week, you may think that Donell ‘DJ’ Cooper is pregnant, his girlfriend is pregnant, or he has cheated an anti-doping test by substituting his pregnant girlfriend’s urine for his own. Numerous news articles accepted various conclusions, including the National Enquirer, the New York Post, and CBS, amongst others. The source of most of the news coverage is a 3 August article, which quotes another article. 

There’s a problem with the above conclusions. The international basketball federation (FIBA) hasn’t published its decision, so we don’t know for certain whether any of this is accurate. And there are reasons why it may not be.

In September 2018, the US basketball player abruptly announced that he was leaving AS Monaco for personal reasons. ‘In my current state, my mind and concentration is not on basketball and I don’t want to be a source of disturbance for the team’, he said in a statement. FIBA’s list of sanctioned athletes shows that it issued Cooper with a two year ban for an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) involving human Chorionic Gonadotrophin (hCG), which expires on 24 June 2020. 

This could have been the reason why his mind was not on the job. However there could have been another reason. Serious illness.

It is accurate that hCG is often used in combination with anabolic androgenic steroid cycles to combat their effect on endogenous (internal) production of testosterone, which can shut down when high doses of exogenous (external) testosterone are administered. So use as part of a doping cycle is a possibility.

It is understood that hCG is a hormone produced by the placenta during pregnancy, and it is often measured in order to assess whether females are pregnant. This perhaps indicates where stories about the ‘pregnancy’ of Cooper, or his girlfriend, originated.

This is why Section S2 2.2.1 of WADA’s Prohibited List prevents hCG in males only, because if the same prohibition were applied to female athletes, sporting federations would be in danger of sanctioning pregnant athletes. However – and this is key – use in combination with steroids and pregnancy are not the only reason hCG may be detected in urine. In 2016, the captain of Eintracht Frankfurt, Marco Russ, was diagnosed with a malignant tumour following a positive test for hCG. 

Since Cooper has been issued with a two year sanction, such an eventuality appears unlikely. However, it also appears unlikely that he was able to substitute his girlfriend’s urine for his own, in full view of a DCO at a test conducted by FIBA. 

Substitution of urine during a doping control is understood to be a difficult deception to pull off. Article 7.2 of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Urine Sample Collection Guidelines states that an athlete providing a sample must remain in full view of the Doping Control Officer (DCO) at all times. To use less polite terms, the DCO must watch the athlete pee. 

Under the World Anti-Doping Code, the starting point is a four year sanction, unless an athlete can prove the source of his positive test (adverse analytical finding). ‘The period of Ineligibility shall be four years where […] The anti-doping rule violation does not involve a Specified Substance, unless the Athlete or other Person can establish that the anti-doping rule violation was not intentional […] The anti-doping rule violation involves a Specified Substance and the Anti-Doping Organization can establish that the anti-doping rule violation was intentional,’ reads Article 10.2.1. hCG is not a specified substance, so it would appear that FIBA accepted some sort of explanation as to how the hCG ended up in Cooper’s sample in order to halve his ban.

Anti-Doping Organisations typically take a strict approach to cases that involve tampering with the doping control process. Given the seriousness of what is alleged to have occurred, a two year ban would appear extraordinarily lenient. 

‘An Athlete or other Person potentially subject to a four-year sanction under Article 10.2.1 or 10.3.1 (for evading or refusing Sample Collection or Tampering with Sample Collection), by promptly admitting the asserted anti-doping rule violation after being confronted by an Anti-Doping Organization, and also upon the approval and at the discretion of both WADA and the Anti-Doping Organization with results management responsibility, may receive a reduction in the period of Ineligibility down to a minimum of two years, depending on the seriousness of the violation and the Athlete or other Person’s degree of Fault’, reads Article 10.6.3 of the World Anti-Doping Code. And substituting your urine for that of your girlfriend would appear to be a very serious violation.

‘Except for the information provided on our website regarding anti-doping rule violations, FIBA will release no further information nor make any comment about cases or players’, read an email from a FIBA spokesperson. The Independent also followed up with FIBA, and was told that he was suspended for fraud. However – and this is also key – we can only guess at what that fraud might be, since FIBA has refused to offer any further clarification. 

All we know is that Cooper has been sanctioned with a two year ban for an ADRV involving hCG which expires next year, and a FIBA spokesperson told a newspaper that the case involved ‘fraud’. Unless we have the full decision, anything else is pure guesswork. 

Yet sections of the media have reported that because hCG is measured by pregnancy tests, Cooper must have substituted his girlfriend’s urine for his own, and she is pregnant. They have not verified this information, and the source for this information is not revealed in the original articles.

The unintentional consequence of how his case has been reported is likely to punish Cooper further, by damaging his relationship with his girlfriend. There is no question that Cooper has committed an ADRV, but in June next year he will have served that sanction and will be free to return to competition. Should his personal life be damaged as well?

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