It’s been more than two years since the BBC came out with a report accusing Alberto Salazar of systematically abusing prescription medications and supplements to enhance performance. The report featured detailed stories of former athletes and coaches, including Steve Magness and Kara Goucher, who claimed that Salazar was constantly seeking an edge with supplements, pushing the boundaries of what clean sport allows. They claimed that Salazar used medical doctors for performance enhancement, not to address health issues. Since that time, the allegations just keep getting worse and more detailed.
How has Nike responded to all this?
As an attorney, I strongly believe in the due process of law. No athlete or coach should be publicly accused without an appropriate process to respond.
But at this stage the weight of allegations is just too much for Nike to keep ignoring this or pretending it’s not happening. We’re past the point where Nike and Salazar can keep sending out milquetoast press releases and maintain their credibility. Salazar’s manipulation of medications is the biggest open joke in the running community, but Nike keeps pretending it's a non-issue.
This isn’t a Duke Lacrosse situation, where three athletes were publicly defamed because of the false accusations of one deeply troubled and unreliable witness.
Right now, there have been allegedly 17 former Oregon project athletes and staff who have accused Salazar of inappropriate behavior. Last week, Propublica published a report alleging that Oregon Project medical records may have been altered. Two days ago, the New York Times reported that the main Oregon Project doctor has received formal notice of allegations of anti-doping violations.
And still from Nike we hear nothing.
The longer this goes on, the worse this will be for Nike. If the allegations against Doctor Brown and Salazar are true, then Nike’s highest profile running program may have engaged in a conspiracy to commit and hide doping violations. But even if that isn’t true, at best, it would appear that the Oregon Project systematically engaged in borderline unethical behavior with respect to medications and supplements.
The one real allegation that Rupp and others violated anti-doping rules is telling in this regard. According to the leaked USADA report:
Galen Rupp’s lawyer handed over a worksheet from the pharmacy that prepared Rupp’s IV that the lawyer may have not understood. USADA thinks he thought it vindicated Rupp as he thought it referred to a “45 ml injectable” when in reality it referred to “four (4) 100ml IV infusion bags” each “containg a concentration of 9.67 grams of L-carnitine per 45 milliliters.” They also have evidence that Dr. Brown altered medical records or intentionally withheld information unlawfully to cover his ground and make it seem as if the amount of the infusion was legal. Rupp’s lawyer handed over a worksheet from the pharmacy that prepared Rupp’s IV that the lawyer may have not understood. USADA thinks he thought it vindicated Rupp as he thought it referred to a “45 ml injectable” when in reality it referred to “four (4) 100ml IV infusion bags” each “containg a concentration of 9.67 grams of L-carnitine per 45 milliliters.” They also have evidence that Dr. Brown altered medical records or intentionally withheld information unlawfully to cover his ground and make it seem as if the amount of the infusion was legal.When you consistently push the absolute limits of what is legally allowed, even if you do not intentionally violate the rules, you make it much more likely that you will unintentionally violate the rules. Perhaps that's what happened here. And if so, it has the potential to cast a shadow over the entire extraordinary career of perhaps the greatest American distance runner of all time.
This is not just about whether Salazar technically violated WADA rules—even as evidence is mounting that he may have done so. Nike needs to address the way the program dealt with supplements generally, even if it is true, as they claim, that no rules were ever violated.
Here’s what Nike needs to do:
- It needs to suspend Alberto Salazar and Dr. Jeffrey Brown, effective immediately, pending the results of the USADA investigation.
- It needs to hire an independent, third-party law firm to systematically review the way the company’s athletic programs handled supplements and prescriptions, to determine who knew what when, whether any abuses took place, and who is responsible. If they find fault, the company needs to create a series of recommendations to improve processes so this does not happen again.
Until Nike addresses this issue head on, all Oregon Project running performances will be under suspicion. Right now, the Oregon Project is synonymous with bending the rules and doping abuse. To the extent that there might be clean athletes in the program, this is not fair to them. To the extent that they aren’t clean, it isn’t fair to rest of the world.
Either way, it’s past the point where Nike can pretend it’s not an issue. The longer Nike plays pretend, the more it starts to make sense to point fingers at not just Salazar or Brown, but at Nike on the whole, CEO Mark Parker, and the Company’s Board of Directors.