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Ryan Braun: 1 – Major League Baseball: 0

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For those who haven’t been following the Ryan Braun case, allow me to catch you up to speed.

  • Ryan Braun was given a random drug test in accordance with MLB policy. After the test, the vials were sealed with tamper-proof seals and Braun signed them in order to ensure that he agreed that they were properly handled and cared for.
  • Braun was then shown to have elevated levels of testosterone caused by synthetic sources. Some leaked reports had his levels “insanely high, the highest ever for anyone who has ever taken a test; twice the level of the highest test ever taken.” Regardless of the levels, the test showed elevated testosterone.
  • Braun took a second (scheduled) test where his levels were in the normal range. The absurdity of scheduled drug testing has been laid out many times before, but there seem to be a number of things you can do when you know a test is coming.
  • Giving that the original test showed the testosterone increase being from a prohibited substance, he was subsequently suspended for 50 games.
  • Important to note that according to sources, the levels were not caused by an anabolic steroid, but instead medication taken for a “medical issue,” whether or not the issue is relating to him trying to get pregnant like Manny Ramirez is unclear.
  • Braun appealed the suspension but did not dispute the test results, instead based his appeal on the chain of custody around his urine sample. More specifically, that because there is nothing in the policy about what should be done with the samples in the event that all of the nearby FedEx offices are closed, and that the tester took the samples home and put them in his refrigerator (something that is prescribed in every other major drug testing policy) the results should be invalid
  • The arbitrator ruled in Braun’s favor and lifted the suspension on the grounds that protocol was breached.

That begs the question of what is correct protocol and was it in fact breached? It’s already been stated that the samples arrived in the lab with the tamper-proof seals fully intact. Adding to that, Drew Silva over at Hardball Talk lays it out about as well as possible, so I am just going to link over to his story and quote on the main points.

  • The courier did not immediately head to a FedEx Office after collecting Braun’s sample following an early-October game because it was late on a Saturday night and he figured the store would be closed. Braun (or, rather, his lawyers) argued in January that the courier’s action was against policy, but the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement states that “specimens cannot be placed in a FedEx Drop Box” and the five FedEx Office locations closest to Miller Park are all closed before 9 p.m. on Saturdays. In fact, the location closest to Miller Park — just 3.28 miles away — isn’t open at all on Saturdays.
  • Also, none of the FedEx Office locations in the Milwaukee area ship items out on Sundays. So instead of giving the sealed cup of urine to a FedEx Office employee at some point Sunday and hoping for proper handling, the courier followed the terms of the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement (see pages 37-39) by storing Braun’s urine sample in a secure refrigerator at his residence until Monday morning, when FedEx could finally get the shipment to the appropriate testing lab in Montreal.
  • The MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement fully allows for temporary storage by couriers — people who are trained and paid to handle drug test samples, and do so as a profession — as long as the specimen can be “appropriately safeguarded,” kept in a “cool and secure location,” with “chain of custody intact.” A refrigerator in the private residence of a trained doping officer would seem to fit those criteria.” 

Back to my thoughts…If we assume the “reports” are true, this really is an interesting case. On one hand Braun tested extremely positive for a banned substance. On the other hand it may not have been a performance enhancing drug. How something that skyrockets your testosterone isn’t a performance enhancing drug (even indirectly) is something that I’m having difficulty comprehending. From my perspective and from a physiological perspective, any time you can get a rise in testosterone levels, your performance in activities that are positively impacted by higher testosterone levels will be enhanced.

For me, the real trouble that I have with the arbitrator’s decision is that it doesn’t satisfy the nature of the policy. I fully and completely understand the importance of a set protocol and chain of command in a situation like this. I also understand that getting labeled as a cheater is something that is hard to recover from in the public eye. Factors such as marketability, legacy, and reputation are negatively impacted and usually can never be fully salvaged. That said, the most telling point of this story is that Braun’s lawyers didn’t argue the test or the results. While Braun himself denies cheating (and if the fact that he took something for a health issue, he may not have been fully aware that he was cheating), the lawyers hung their hats on a technicality, and one that by the accounts that I’ve seen, isn’t even a technicality. Their point is comparable to a criminal being set free because the police officers didn’t properly Mirandize him. Also comparable to somoene who threw a paint can out of his apartment window that hit and killed a man walking on the street arguing: “Well yeah, I threw it out the window, but I didn’t know it was going to hit anyone and the trash doesn’t get picked up for 2 days, so really it’s the city’s fault that it happened.” Should MLB have been more specific in their wording and diligent in their review process? Probably. Instead, putting it into poker terms, they allowed a player to hang around in a losing hand and catch a miracle on the river.

So what now? Well MLB is pursuing legal action in the form of an appeal in Federal court that the arbitrator did not interpret the rules correctly when he made his decision. Whether or not the case actually has legs, the entire policy that Selig thought was unbeatable just took a roundhouse kick to the jaw. Athletes who have been and continue to compete cleanly also have to feel slighted by the ruling. Taking it a step further, the players who have already been suspended more or less because they didn’t hire the right lawyers or live in a town where FedEx closes early also should probably look into appealing their cases. Maybe the most important takeaway from the entire case and baseball’s steroid era as a whole is, no matter how hard you work to provide a level-playing field, there will always be people, usually smarter people, working to gain a competitive advantage. Final score: Ryan Braun: 1 – Major League Baseball: 0.

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