Sharapova’s latest tricks to avoid drug charge

The battle to establish blame for Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test has intensified as the latest elements of her strategy become clear.

See my earlier blogs to understand the way she launched her counter-attack.

As her legal and public relations campaign gains momentum, the aim now is to define the precise question that will be asked by the public, her fellow tennis professionals, the tennis authorities and, most importantly, her sponsors.

The questions her public relations managers want to avoid are these: why was she using a drug for a decade that many others were clearly taking to enhance their performances? This of course was the reason it was banned. Should she not have been more careful when deciding to take such a controversial drug? Is the drug so important to her health that she will have to continue taking it?

She may be one of the few people not taking the drug for performance enhancing purposes – but it still raises the question why so many athletes at the peak of their fitness seemed to be suffering from illnesses that could only be treated with this drug.

In other words, while using the drug meldonoium until the start of this year was technically legal, did her motives stink?

She may have perfectly legitimate answers but it is clear that her minders want to divert attention away from this question.

Instead they want to drag the issue back to her initial defence which was that she was responsible for making a “huge mistake” which is much easier for them to argue with the tennis authorities.

The problem with sustaining this defence is that it is hugely implausible. As many commentators have noted, Sharapova has a strong team of advisers with expertise in public relations, every other aspect of her public image and of course her physical health.

It seems almost inconceivable that she and her team could allow such an error to occur.

And the strategy used in recent days shows that her team realised how weak this position was and that it needed to be backed up by a robust additional tactics.

Some of the elements of this strategy are in place. At its heart is the attempt to discredit everyone who might try to hold her to account.

Her latest Facebook statement is another masterpiece of public relations spin. She reiterates that her comments are all part of her open and honest strategy and she says she has no excuses.

However she also spends several paragraphs providing excuses for failing to be aware the drug was banned from the start of the year. “The communications? They were buried in newsletters, websites, or handouts,” she wrote.

“In order to be aware of this ‘warning’, you had to open an email with a subject line having nothing to do with anti-doping, click on a webpage, enter a password, enter a username, hunt, click, hunt, click, hunt, click, scroll and read.

“I guess some in the media can call that a warning. I think most people would call it too hard to find.”

As others examine the communications, we will discover how legitimate her complaint is – but for now it serves as a clever attempt to explain the “big mistake.”

A second element is to make a generalised attack on her critics – a well-known diversionary tactic used by any organisation under pressure.

She condemned “distorted and exaggerated” reporting; most interestingly she denied taking meldonium every day.

I have looked at a lot of the coverage and I don’t recall anyone saying she was taking the drug every day – but just in case someone did, one can say for certain that this was hardly one of the major allegations.

In fact the only person I remember citing the allegation was her lawyer John J Haggerty. He said he wanted to “disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.”

It is very clever; deny an allegation that, if it was made at all, is totally absurd; create the impression that is a widely-made allegation by denying it several times. And then argue that this probably non-existent allegation is evidence of “distorted and exaggerated” reporting.

This passive aggressive defence (using an image of injured innocence and human eroor to soften a hard-nosed legal strategy) has been as effective as it possibly could be.

And I don’t know whether Sharapova used the drug in all innocence or was aware that it could give her a performance advantage if used in certain quantities.

But the way she is conducting her campaign – particularly the mix of PR spin and legal aggression – mean that I wouldn’t find her case convincing if I was in a jury hearing their evidence.


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