Unpacking the scandal involving Maria Sharapova

Earlier today, former #1 tennis player Maria Sharapova rocked the sports world with news of a failed drug test sustained during the Australian Open. Social media was ablaze for the past 24 hours with anticipation regarding the “major announcement” that Sharapova planned to share sparking news from pundits and critics alike who thought she was planning to retire. She only played 3 events over the past 8 months,  nearly made the final at the Year End Championships in 2015 and fell to an in-form Serena Williams in the quarters at this year’s Australian Open. I would have regarded this announcement similarly to that of Justine Henin when she retired the first time in 2008 and Marion Bartoli shortly after winning Wimbledon in 2013: she’s another athlete who no longer had the will or ability to compete at the highest level and now is looking forward to other endeavors. We now know the truth: the world’s highest paid athlete for 11 consecutive years has been knowingly taking drugs containing Meldonium, a recently banned substance among other drugs for health issues. A few things stuck out for me when the news hit earlier today:

Kudos to Sharapova for taking the lead on sharing her “truth”. I remember Marion Jones’ drive for 5 and watched emphatically as she went on to win 5 medals during her Olympic campaign. The downfall and subsequent jail time was hard to swallow. Owning up to taking this drug on heels of it becoming recently banned takes tremendous courage. I’ve long loved watching Maria on the courts and love her fighting, never-say-die attitude. Serena owned her in their Olympic match, but when Serena can’t win, I always rooted for Maria. I imagine that the ITF would have publicized this following her full case review, but taking a lead to acknowledge this can help salvage her image in the face of a pending ban.

My tweet acknowledging Maria and this incident:

Tsk.Tsk. Caught using a drug not approved by the US FDA? Maria has stated that she was taking a number of drugs to treat a number of health issues — diabetes and heart problems in particular. The heart one I could understand — losing to Serena Williams 18 straight times would induce heart ache among other emotions. One news source revealed that the drug appears to have endurance enchancing effects hence banning it was the right call. She is now 1 of 7 athletes to have failed recent tests that have contained Meldonium. I find it incredibly suspicious that the All-American girl from Siberia has an American accent and European healthcare. Her usage of this little pill from Latvia has our heads spinning. Did she know that it was performance enhancing?  If you watch a fluff piece on Sharapova before her Wimbledon win over Serena in 2004 as a teen, you’ll catch my drift — she risked it all by moving to the US to chase her dream.

Will the corporations come to bat for the tennis star? When you look at Serena and Maria’s earnings on and off court, the numbers are very telling and show that the corporations have helped catapult Maria to a historic level of financial freedom. Nike who has had deals with Serena and Maria over the past decade recently suspended their support of Sharapova while the case ensues. All eyes are on the others like Porshe, Cole Haan and the sponsors that contribute to the $30M earned offcourt. Sharapova also dominates social media — she leads the WTA tour in social followers and she is one of the reasons why women’s tennis leads men’s in viewership. Part of me wonders if these same sponsors will quietly support Maria and lobby for leniency. Many have accused Serena for doping over the years because America has yet to embrace a strong, black woman as “pretty”, where corporate America has not being shy about saying the former when it comes to Sharapova (case in point below):

 

Tomorrow is World Tennis Day and despite the recent scandals (drugs and match-fixing), there’s much to celebrate: the sport is still among the most popular in the US and growing, there are many who respect the sport enough not to cheat and play fairly, and we still have Serena Williams and while we have her, we better respect her.

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