Why Kolo deserved his ban despite his innocent-enough mistake

Last week, Manchester City defender Kolo Touré was banned from all football activities after being found guilty of taking a prohibited substance, contained within a dieting pill belonging to his wife. It was backdated to the date when he was initially suspended, so he will be available again in early September.

As most will be aware, it is now standard procedure for the Football Association to carry out random drug tests on players without giving clubs any notice. The actual sampling officers are independent though, and are accompanied by an FA supervising officer (a doctor or physiotherapist approved by the FA).

As a Manchester City fan, should I be outraged at such a punishment, the result of a seemingly honest mistake by a teetotal, devout Muslim? No, of course not. He deserves to be banned; in fact he HAD to be banned.

You could argue that what he took was not related to football, and not performance-enhancing. That it was an honest mistake, a stupid solitary mistake, which should not be punished so harshly. After all, everyone makes mistakes. But the fact is that he took something that is banned, and he knew what the consequences of doing this would be. All players have it drummed into them by club doctors and management that they cannot take a whole raft of medicinal products, that there is a whole swathe of ingredients that are no-go areas and that if there is any doubt with taking something they should get it checked out first. It’s part of being a professional footballer.
You could even argue that by taking something to slim down, it could be considered performance enhancing. I wouldn’t personally.

Toure was found to have taken a “specified substance”. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s “code”, “specified substances” are those that are “more susceptible to a credible, non-doping explanation.”
The code states: “If the athlete can prove that he or she did not intend to enhance performance by using them to the satisfaction of the results management authority, the sanction under the World Anti-Doping code can go from a warning to a two-year ban.”

It’s impossible to say what the correct ban length should be – there’s no rulebook that decides the fairness of these things, it is entirely subjective. One journalist tweeted that Rio Ferdinand and Paddy Kenny got 9 months and Touré only 6 months, so where was the consistency? Yeah, because all drug offences are the same, so it should be the same punishment for everyone.

Paddy Kenny was banned for nine months in September 2009 after testing positive for ephedrine, a prohibited substance found in cold remedies. The FA chose not to punish Paddy Kenny to the full extent of its powers (the aforementioned 2 years) after admitting that he had not deliberately sought to enhance performance when taking an over-the-counter cold remedy without consulting Sheffield United’s medical team, in a case thus very similar to Touré’s. On the other hand, Hamilton midfielder Simon Mensing was banned for just a month after testing positive for another specified substance, methylhexaneamine, in December 2010. This too appeared to be a dietary supplement, and he provided credible evidence to support his case. The Scottish Football Association took that information into account when sentencing him to an unusually short ban, using much more leniency than if he had been up before their English counterparts. There will always be inconsistencies between different FA’s, but within an FA, there will presumably be just reason for differing periods of bans for particular players.

Comment must be made too on Rio Ferdinand. It was milliseconds after the announcement of the six month ban came out that the first United fan complained about the injustice of it all. You see, in many United fans’ eyes, Ferdinand didn’t do anything wrong, and it is a miscarriage of justice that a player we know to have taken a banned substance gets a lesser punishment than a player we do not know to have taken a banned substance. But leaving Ferdinand out of this, let’s look at the general scenario, and cut to the chase – a player who misses a drug test should get the maximum punishment available. If anyone cannot work out the logic behind this, then I would be very surprised.
But perhaps it should be explained anyway – those who decide punishments must presume that someone who missed a test is guilty of taking a banned substance, and a performance-enhancing one at that, and thus pass judgement with that assumption in mind. They must do this because if they did not, any player who had taken a banned substance and was asked to take a drugs test would deliberately miss it knowing the punishment would be less that way. Players must be aware that the test must be taken – and that not taking it will not be in their interest. It is the only logical stance to take.

As for Ferdinand, I have heard claims from United fans that the player offered to return immediately to take the test, an offer that was rejected by the drug-testers. If this is true then he has claims for unfair treatment, but I have never heard this claim mentioned in an official publication, so it’s mere speculation. I’ve also heard claims he did do the test the day after, but still got banned. Again, if so (and I have no idea if it is), then it does seem harsh on him.

There was extra criticism in many circles to the fact that Touré’s ban covers the summer months – should it not just cover months of the football season? Well it’s not a new rule, but the fact remains is he will miss pre-season, so even when his ban expires in early September, he will still be nowhere ready to return to the first team. Because of this he will probably end up missing five months of playing time anyway. But it is a point worth debating – depending on which time of year a player gets banned, can alter how much football he misses.

There are reports in the newspapers at the moment that Touré is looking to appeal the decision, and hopefully get the ban reduced. If this is true then I am disappointed. There’s no harm in chancing your arm I guess, but personally I would take the punishment and move on. After all, even if Touré did prove to the FA that he only ingested a prohibited substance unknowingly, his punishment according to Wada could still have been as big as a two-year ban.

Drug tests are a serious part of maintaining the integrity of the sport. Stupidity and ignorance are no excuses, and the FA’s disciplinary commission rightly refuses to accept ignorance as an excuse. The best thing Touré can do is accept this and give his all on his return. He is being fully paid during his six month absence, and I would hope this should spur him on more – he made an innocent-enough mistake, but in many aspects he has been very fortunate indeed.