VALPARAISO | Established 10 years ago, the Valparaiso University sports law clinic is the only one of its kind.
“It’s a niche subject and there aren’t tons of cases. It’s also highly time demanding,” said Michael Straubel, clinic director and a VU law professor.
Straubel, who is head coach of the university’s cross country teams, said the issue of athlete doping came to the forefront in the late 1990s.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency began operations in 2000. Since then, it has only lost three cases, two of which have been to the VU sports law clinic.
One of the cases handled by the clinic is confidential, but the other was highly publicized at the time and involved former Calumet City resident LaTasha Jenkins.
Jenkins, like many other amateur sports athletes accused of doping, lacked the funds to hire an attorney, Straubel said.
“These are not big-time athletes with big salaries," he said. "They were going without representation."
Enter the sports law clinic, which provides free or low-cost legal services to athletes while giving third-year law students hands-on experience.
Each year, the clinic handles about 10 cases of athletes in amateur arenas of competition including Olympic, college and high school.
Cases have involved doping and drug testing, discipline, team eligibility, gender equity, visas to compete and loss of scholarship.
Resolution of a case often can take up to two years, Straubel said.
The Jenkins case was finally settled in 2008, after one year and nine months, when the World Anti-Doping Agency dropped its appeal of a U.S. arbitration ruling that had cleared her of a positive drug test.
Jenkins tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone during a 2006 international track meet in Belgium.
The sports law clinic argued successfully the drug testing did not follow established procedures and that Jenkins did not intentionally take the steroid.
In another case against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2010, the sports law clinic was able to get a two-year drug suspension reduced to four months.
Jessica Cosby, a hammer thrower, took a pill containing banned diuretics. The next day she failed a random drug test.
An arbitration panel agreed to reduce the sentence after hearing arguments by the sports law clinic, which maintained Cosby took the pill to help her urinate and not to enhance her performance or cover up drugs in her system.
Straubel said the clinic now is preparing to represent athletes who’ve been accused of doping based not on a failed drug test, but on changes in their blood or hormones.
A new test shows whether an athlete’s blood profile, called a biological passport, has changed in comparison with a baseline established in earlier tests.
“The test doesn’t reveal there’s a prohibited substance in your body, it simply determines whether the level of red blood cells or testosterone is above normal for you,” Straubel said.
If an athlete tests above normal, the presumption is they took something that resulted in that, he said.
“If we ever get one of those cases, we’ll be ready,” Straubel said.