Chael Sonnen returns from exile, hired by ESPN as MMA analyst

Chael Sonnen returns from exile, hired by ESPN as MMA analyst

ESPN's somewhat surprising decision to hire former UFC fighter Chael Sonnen as an on-air mixed martial arts analyst is bound to draw strong reactions, on both sides.

Sonnen's career imploded in the late spring, when he failed two random drug tests given to him back-to-back by the Nevada Athletic Commission. That ultimately led to him receiving a two-year suspension which effectively ended his fighting career.

But the test failures -- and Sonnen's over-the-top way he spoke about them on the air -- cost him his second job as an MMA analyst at Fox

It's only been five months since this all went down, and it seems way too fast. It was inevitable that Sonnen would return to television, because he's too good at what he does.

But ESPN announced Tuesday it had hired the so-called "American Gangster," and that he would appear on its MMA coverage beginning on Friday when he discusses UFC 180 in Mexico City. According to an ESPN news release, Sonnen will appear on SportsCenter and other UFC platforms.

Chael Sonnen
Chael Sonnen

It's a boon for the UFC, because it's a commitment by the most powerful sports television network in the world to more regular MMA coverage. One would assume that Sonnen won't just be limited to UFC coverage, either; Fox had a business deal with UFC and didn't cover other promotions, but ESPN does not and it would seem likely that Sonnen will talk about other MMA promotions as well, most notably Bellator.

But Sonnen's hiring is also going to bring it increased scrutiny for bringing back one of the worst, most blatant drug cheats in the history of sports.

ESPN made no mention of Sonnen's notorious past in its news release. But Glenn Jacobs, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for MMA coverage, told the Associated Press' Greg Beacham that he is unconcerned about Sonnen's numerous past failures.

We know Chael has made some mistakes in the past. He's been honest. He's been up-front about it. He has paid for the mistakes that he has made, and he's moving forward.

After Sonnen eviscerated Fox's Mike Hill on the air while discussing his drug test failures, it was clear he was a short-timer with that network. It was a classless thing to do and he deserved to lose his job for that.

Because he lied on the air so repeatedly about his drug usage, it's going to be hard for him to regain credibility with a large segment of the ESPN audience. Sonnen, of course, is now singing a different tune when he says he's in favor of increased drug testing and against the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

I am for clean sport. The rules have changed during my career. The rules have changed during this year, which landed me in a tough spot because I didn't change with them. But the reality is, the rules are good, and to have clean sport is good.

There are times when you can turn to science and medicine, and that looks like a pretty seductive route. But if I had to choose one of the two, I would not choose the side that I was on. I would support the other side. We need a clean sport, and we've got to follow the rules, and that's it. I accept the consequences.

In order to regain credibility, Sonnen has to become an outspoken leader in the anti-drug crusade. He needs to say what he knows, and discuss how fighters have been able to beat the system. Just passing a drug test is no guarantee that one was not doping, as Dr. Lawrence Bowers notably said during his testimony for the United States Anti-Doping Agency during the Lance Armstrong case.

In addition, he's no longer working for a company with a deal with the UFC. He's going to have to speak bluntly about UFC management and discuss its failings as well as its successes.

He said he'll speak out, but time will tell if that is true.

I wouldn't shy away from a topic, even if it's one that brought me shame. There are topics like that, and there are opponents I'm going to have to cover that have also embarrassed themselves, but that's part of the sport, man. I cherish those moments.

Though what Sonnen did in failing those drug tests and then repeatedly lying about it was reprehensible, he did it in his role as a fighter, not a broadcaster. It's not like he harmed anyone by lying; he only made himself and the company that gave him a platform look bad. He deserves the right to make a living.

He forfeited his right to make a living as a fighter, at least until the middle of 2016, and he says he's retired as a fighter. Any athletic commission should quickly oppose any attempt by Sonnen to return during the two-year suspension he was given by the Nevada commisison for his failure. 

And if he chooses to return after his suspension is up -- which he says he will not do -- then he should be tested regularly to make certain he is clean.

Bantamweight Dominick Cruz is one of many fighters who have carved out a nice career as an MMA analyst on Fox Sports. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Bantamweight Dominick Cruz is one of many fighters who have carved out a nice career as an MMA analyst on Fox Sports. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

But as a broadcaster, the man paid a heavy price. He lost a high-profile, high-paying gig and was disgraced in the process.

Still, he deserves the right to make a living.

ESPN can say that it's not concerned about his past, but it will ultimately be up to the public to decide. If the public doesn't forgive him, and if he can't regain his credibility with the audience, then it won't matter what any executive in Bristol, Conn., might believe.

There are dozens upon dozens of UFC fighters who have shown immense promise as broadcasters, and ESPN could have hired any one of them and avoided the controversy that is sure to surround Sonnen.

But it opted to cast its lot with a guy who, frankly, lied to people's faces with regularity.

It's hard to believe he'll do what he says because of his past, but if he does, he can be a clear asset to ESPN's broadcast coverage of MMA.

He shouldn't be given any breaks when it turns to the resumption of his fight career, but he served his time as a broadcaster and ESPN was within its rights to hire him.

 

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