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Spurs Women’s Ubogagu issued nine month ban for doping violation

But Ubogagu’s story isn’t nearly as straightforward as “she was caught cheating” as she explains in The Player’s Tribune.

Coventry United Ladies v Tottenham Hotspur Women - FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

If you have been following Tottenham Hotspur Women’s record-breaking WSL campaign this season, you might have noticed the absence of Chioma Ubogagu from Tottenham’s lineups for the past few months. The 29 year old forward hadn’t been seen since a 13 minute substitute appearance in Spurs’ 1-1 draw vs Everton on January 16.

Not knowing why a WSL player is out of the lineup is unfortunately somewhat routine — there simply isn’t the same amount of coverage or scrutiny directed at the WSL as there is in the men’s game. Most, myself included, probably assumed that Ubogagu had picked up a niggling or long-term injury that had gone unreported, or that (uncharitably) something had happened that had led to her falling out of favor with Spurs manager Rehanne Skinner.

It turns out there was a very good reason for her absence, and it had nothing to do with injury or club relations. Today, the club announced that Ubogagu has been banned by the Football Association for nine months for a doping violation that was reported in October 2021. The ban was enforced starting in January and will run until October of 2022, after the start of the 2022-23 season.

There is, of course, a stigma attached to doping violations, one that is well-earned by professional athletes who set about using banned substances to illegally enhance their performance, but Ubogagu’s situation is unique and a lot more complicated than the headline would have you believe. The FA’s official statement on the incident is pretty dry and states only that it happened and that the violation(s) were “committed unintentionally.”

The forward was charged with two ADRVs under The FA’s Anti-Doping Regulations for the presence and use of canrenone, which is a banned substance, and had been detected within a urine sample collected during a squad test on Thursday 7 October 2021 by UK Anti-Doping.

Chioma Ubogagu admitted the two ADRVs, which the Commission accepted were committed unintentionally, and found that Chioma Ubogagu had established that she committed them without significant fault or negligence on her part during a subsequent hearing.

— Statement, The FA

But there’s more to it than that. Tottenham’s official release on Ubogagu’s ban notes that the violation stems from a routine medication that Ubogagu had prescribed by her physician in the United States, before she even joined the club, and which contained a diuretic that is banned in the USA and UK. The club was bound by FA regulations to report the incident, and the FA started an investigation with which Spurs and Ubogagu cooperated fully.

Chioma was prescribed two forms of medication in the United States from a personal doctor to treat acne before signing for the Club.

The 29-year-old continued to take the medication to treat her skin condition after she arrived without the knowledge that the medication was prohibited.

In November 2021, Chioma requested a repeat prescription from the Club doctor who alerted the relevant bodies; the FA and UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) about the use of a banned substance.

The FA accepts that Chioma did not take the medication, spironolactone, with a view to intentionally securing an illegal advantage.

— Statement, Tottenham Hotspur

In this light, Ubogagu’s ban is extremely unfortunate, and could even be construed as harsh under the circumstances. Unfortunately, FA regulations are clear about such violations, even when they are accidental with no intention to enhance performance, or if the alleged performance enhancements are negligible. Ubogagu’s ban began in January, during which she was not allowed to play, train, or even attend football matches.

This is the first opportunity Ubogagu or the club has had to address the incident, and Chioma simultaneously released an emotional article about what happened in The Player’s Tribune alongside the public releases by the FA and Tottenham Hotspur. In that release, she talks about her adolescent struggles with acne which led her to a dermatologist in the USA and how joining Tottenham during COVID meant that some usual medical procedures with the club physicians were not possible. She noted that the substance she was banned for doesn’t even enhance performance, and that she was drug tested three weeks prior to requesting a refill from the club doctors, with no issues detected.

I found out that spironolactone is not performance-enhancing — and to be clear it gave me zero athletic advantage in my sport — but it’s banned because it is a diuretic. Basically, it can be used to mask other substances. I had absolutely no idea.

My stomach sank. I got goosebumps. I kind of froze for a second and then I had to explain to Craig, “Hey, listen, I was actually drug tested three weeks ago … I think this could be a problem.”

I didn’t sleep much that night, but all credit to Craig and the Spurs staff who took control of the situation when I felt totally helpless.

They got in contact with UK Anti-Doping to explain what had happened and started the process of applying for a TUE (that stands for Therapeutic Use Exemption). They even sent me to a local dermatologist who looked at my case history and was like, “Yeah, I would’ve prescribed the same.…”

— Chioma Ubogagu, The Player’s Tribune

Ubogagu and the club applied for a Theraputic Use Exemption from the FA, which was denied due to a regulation that states that the application would have needed to be submitted for consideration before starting to take the medication. Eventually Ubogagu exhausted her appeals, and her violation and punishment were upheld.

Ubogagu’s Player’s Tribune article is heartbreaking, and worth reading in its entirety. Unfortunately, the FA was not particularly interested in leniency in her situation, although it should be noted that in the UK doping violations can range from 24 to 48 months, which puts her nine month ban in something like context.

This really does feel like one of those black-or-white “letter of the law” punishments that one would think could be excused or forgiven due to circumstances beyond Ubogagu’s control, but is not. You can on one hand understand the FA’s reluctance to set a precedent that could be potentially exploited by other athletes in future doping violation cases, but after reading Chioma’s story this does feel so ridiculously arbitrary, unfortunate, and sad. At the end of the day, Ubogagu will miss a substantial chunk of her two year contract with Tottenham Hotspur Women for something that she did not know she did and would not have been able to avoid even if she had known ahead of time.

It is a mistake, albeit a clearly unintentional one, and athletes are ultimately responsible for checking to ensure that all medications do not contain substances that are banned in sport, but it feels like there should be room for leniency in the process that simply does not currently exist. Subsequently, Chioma has clearly been put through an emotional wringer that affected not just herself, but also her Spurs Women teammates, who were kept in the dark as to why she was no longer with the team.

In the club statement, Ubogagu apologizes to fans and to her teammates for what happened and for her absence the past few months.

“I am so sorry to my teammates and staff that I can’t be out on the pitch. The Club has been fully supportive throughout this entire process, and I am so appreciative of all their help. My faith, family, and close friends have helped me immensely in this difficult time. I am eager to be back soon now that this has been resolved.

“I want to make clear that the medication had no performance-enhancing effects for me, but I still made the mistake of not being as diligent as possible, and as a result I am unable to play the game I love until I serve my suspension. While my dermatologist is aware of my profession, it is also my responsibility to know more about the medications I am prescribed.

“I plan to share my story and educate others on the severity of what can happen, and I hope I can help other athletes avoid situations like mine in the future.”

It’s a nice statement and a heartfelt apology. She really shouldn’t have to make it. What’s become clear here is that Chioma Ubogagu was the victim of a system that has very good intentions — the prevention of athletes cheating by chemically boosting their bodies — but very little wiggle room for nuance or mistakes, even ones that are unintentional or made out of ignorance. Chioma ends her Players Tribune article with a plea for other athletes to be aware that this can happen, that it is up to the athletes to be hyper-vigilant about what they put in or on their bodies, and a fervent wish that what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else.