About @Jason_IIATMS

IIATMS overlord and founder. ESPN contributor. Purveyor of luscious reality.

18 thoughts on “Conte on Braun: “A giant loophole”

  1. I think this hit the nail on the head…. simply looking at the epi/normal T ratios is a very crude screen and I think if that was the only issue, I could see Braun trying to argue his way around it. Explaining the presence on a synthetic testosterone? I'm not a chemist but barring mishandling of the sample it doesn't seem like something that can be explained away easily.

    Baseball's testing system is based on the anabolic age where athletes would go through long cycles on and off the stuff (weeks) so even though players could get lucky, random testing is still a deterrent as I don't think a lot of major leaguers would gamble (though some minor leaguers or marginal players might)

    If they are using stuff that clears much quicker (in terms of epi-testosterone level), I think more players would be (and are currently ) willing to roll the dice.

    I know the followup testing (carbon isotope) is more time consuming and I assume more expensive, but that is actually looking for synthetic testosterones which while the levels may come down to normal levels don't clear the system as quickly. One test is designed to find something the other is just looking to determine if it's worth looking for.

    If there is not the infrastructure to preform the carbon isotope test on all samples, I think even if baseball threatens to do occasional random followup testing (even on samples that don't show elevated testosterone ratios) that might serve as a deterrent. The problem now is if you know (or at least think) you can beat the first test, the 2nd test never comes into play.

    • Hank, stop me if we've discussed this before …

      The testers cannot test for the presence of synthetic testosterone. Synthetic (the better word is "exogenous", or produced outside of the athlete's body) testosterone is chemically identical to "natural" (again, the better word is "endogenous") testosterone. If you placed a molecule of testosterone produced by Braun's system next to a molecule of testosterone from a patch or cream and gave a scientist the power to examine each molecule down to a subatomic level, the scientist would be unable to tell you which molecule was which.

      Carbon isotope ratio is based on a theory that users of exogenous testosterone will produce urine samples containing testosterone metabolites that are relatively light in carbon 13 atoms. The theory is a good one, but in my opinion not a perfect one. In any event, the best one can say is that the CIR test measures something that might be a byproduct of the use of exogenous testosterone.

      I don't want to bore you with details, but if you want details, just ask.

      I agree with most of what you've written. CIR testing needs to be performed on a spot basis even for samples that pass the testosterone-epitestosterone test. Problem is that CIR testing is expensive and quite complicated. But some spot CIR testing is a good idea.

  2. Jason, Conte remains an interesting character. I've cited him numerous times in pieces I've written about drug testing, and in particular to argue that the so-called "steroids era" is probably not over. That being said …

    … what Conte is arguing is that Braun probably was using testosterone cream or patches as part of a program for muscle recovery. This was a common practice in a sport like cycling, where the riders punish their bodies unmercifully over a two or three week Tour, and the ability to restore the body is critical between race stages. Baseball itself has its long season, where the body wears down as a result of travel and a plethora of injuries small and large. It's possible that some baseball players might use testosterone as a sort of high-tech Ben-Gay. But there's no scientific proof that testosterone actually works this way, for cyclists, baseball players or anyone else.

    Note that the kind of use of testosterone that Conte is describing is NOT for the purpose of getting unnaturally strong and hitting lots of home runs. The cyclists who used testosterone in the way Conte described did NOT want to become big and muscular. Cyclists need to be able to generate as much power in their legs as possible, while at the same time becoming as light as possible.

    Here's the other thing: athletes that use testosterone to promote muscle recovery reportedly do NOT use large doses of testosterone. But from the reports we've seen, Braun's positive test showed a massive, off-the-scale use of testosterone. This is part of what doesn't make sense at the moment. Of course, it's possible that Braun intended to use a small dose and accidentally took a much larger dose … or that he just metabolized the testosterone he took in a bizarre way.

    If Conte is suggesting that carbon isotope ratio testing is the solution to the problem he's perceiving … well, that's an exaggeration. To be sure, carbon isotope ratio testing is more sensitive than the older testosterone/epitestosterone ratio testing (which is good only if used as a screening test, and even then is not a terrific screening test). But even carbon isotope ratio testing is unlikely to catch testosterone doping unless the testing is performed within 24 hours of administration of the drug. The 24 hour window is significant, as it lessens the need to perform surprise drug tests in the middle of the night. But given that baseball only tests players 2-3 times a year on average, with one of those tests scheduled a year in advance, there still isn't much risk that carbon isotope ratio testing is going to catch anyone.

    In any event … the mystery surrounding the Braun story remains. The story still doesn't make any sense. I won't argue that things don't look good for Braun, but we simply do not have the facts, and the facts we have don't make much sense. Admittedly, just about every doping story starts out this way … but I still prefer to wait until the full story is reported before I reach any conclusions.

    As per always, anyone who has questions about this topic should ask.

    • Is the shelf life in the system just 24 hours for these synthetics?

      Testosterone simply coming back down to normal levels doesn't mean all of the synthetic testosterone has passed through the body (or does it?) If the carbon isotope testing is not concentration dependent of synthetic levels, perhaps the window is longer?

      • Joe, part of the answer to your question is that we human beings are a highly diverse bunch, biologically speaking. We don't all react the same way to exogenous testosterone. There are tests where people are given large doses of testosterone and none of their numbers budge.

        This being said, the way humans metabolize exogenous testosterone can depend on how the testosterone is administered. Testosterone injections are metabolized differently than testosterone creams, and testosterone in pill form. From what I've read, creams and patches are metabolized rather quickly.

        My guess is that exogenous testosterone is not going to pass completely through the body in 24 hours, at least not in most cases. But testosterone testing depends on there being a certain minimum quantity of exogenous testosterone in the system at the time of testing. Figure that on average for most people, use of exogenous testosterone will cause testosterone levels to peak after a few hours, and then decline. At some point the decline reaches a level where testosterone levels are below the threshold to test positive.

        As always here, I'm trying to answer questions as directly and non-technically as I can, so if this doesn't tell you what you want to know, follow up.

        • Do we have any idea at this point at the long-term effects are of maintaining a (sometimes significantly) higher-level of testosterone than the body normally would produce for long periods of time?

    • Isn't it also possible that Braun used too much testosterone because he did not have a sophisticated or particularly well-informed idea of how to achieve his goals? I've followed cycling for a long time, and, on the basis of that observation, it seems like there are two big categories of PED users: those who have good medical advice, take PEDs in a sophisticated way, and rarely, if ever, get caught through testing; and those who hear about this good medical advice second-hand and try to do this stuff on their own. People in the second category are the ones who most often screw things up and fail tests.

      Maybe Braun was in this second category. Maybe he thought that if it was good to keep the testosterone patch on for x amount of time, it would be even better to leave it on for 3x. Cycling is full of people who do this sort of thing. I would expect the same to be true for baseball — or any other sport.

      • Paul, I also follow cycling, and I learned much of what I know about PEDs in the Landis and Contador cases, plus the ongoing speculation surrounding Lance Armstrong. So I understand what you are saying. Sure, it's possible that Braun received bad medical advice, or no medical advice. It's possible that he followed the 3x theory, or that he simply made a mistake (i.e., he intended to wear a testosterone patch for 30 minutes, but he fell asleep and had the thing on for 8 hours).

        It's often true at the early stage of a doping case that we're confronted with facts that make little or no sense to us. In the Braun case, we have to ask why any baseball player would want to take testosterone near the end of the season and before his participation in the playoffs. This has been ignored by the MSM, but obviously this is not a time when we'd expect a baseball player to start cycling anabolic steroids, looking for gains in strength and size. Conte makes a valuable suggestion here, providing what could at least be a plausible motive for a baseball player to use a testosterone patch as the season winds down. In this regard, the Braun case might prove to be similar to the Floyd Landis case, where Landis allegedly used testosterone during the 2006 Tour de France to promote muscle recovery between race stages. The "3x" you suggest is also reminiscent of Landis, who allegedly overdid his testosterone use after having "bonked" during a critical stage of the race. (I stress "allegedly" in the Landis case because he continues to deny using testosterone during the 2006 Tour, while he's admitted using just about everything else.)

        One difference between cycling and baseball is that baseball players make a lot more money than cyclists. Braun made over $4 million in 2011 — compare that to Landis, who earned $500,000 in 2005 (the year before his doping conviction) — and that's a lot for a cyclist. The minimum salary for cyclists in the top realm of the sport is about $45,000. The average baseball player can afford better doping advice than the average cyclist.

    • Damn. The argument is that there is some conventional and legitimate medication, not requiring a therapeutic use exemption, that can cause someone's testosterone levels to spike and their carbon isotope ratio test to go south? Wow. That news would cause some people's brains to explode.

    • Although TMZ has accurate news most of the time, like how they were the first to report Michael's Jackson's death, sometimes they're just pushing false gossip possibly due to bad sources. Basically, I wouldn't be surprised if this TMZ story turns out to be false.

      • It's not possible to take all the information out there about the Braun case and piece it together into a coherent and consistent story. As I've said, this is the way that all big doping stories start.

        This being said, Fox has reported independent of TMZ that a "source" has stated that Braun's test result was not linked to a performance-enhancing drug. No, I don't know what that means either. Yes, the TMZ source and the Fox source may well be the same source. Obviously we wouldn't have a story if the Montreal lab had detected the presence of gummy bear residue in Braun's urine. If I knew of some way that an athlete could flunk a testosterone doping test by taking something other than testosterone, I'd say so.

    • If this is true, maybe Braun can change his name to Ron Mexico, and take Michael Vick's place as Valtrex's newest spokesperson.

  3. I was going to mention this in response to what Dave Brown wrote about it at Big League Stew tomorrow, but long story short, I don't really see anything that should be illegal in that second excerpt. Unless there are some pretty severe side effects, I don't see why medication to help minor tears and wear heal faster should be illegal. It's certainly no more unnatural than Tommy John surgery.

  4. Thanks for the answer, Larry. I didn't mean in my question to actually implicitly imply that this is what is currently happening with Braun … there is simply not enough information to draw that sort of conclusion at the moment.

    However, it seems clear that in past cases part of the driving factor in taking supplements is to aid recovery and/or increase athletic performance. The latter clearly has value implications that were in the past lucratively rewarded.

    It is really that latter case that made me wonder what the long-term implications that athletes considering this path are risking down the line.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to weigh in on my question.