While we wait for more facts, let’s dispose of two points currently circulating about the Braun case. The first take is that the Braun case was decided on a “technicality”. This argument is based on a wrong idea of how drug testing works. The labs don’t search for testosterone in urine the way you and I would search for a worm in an apple. The testing process can take a day or longer, and there are many steps involved. All of these steps – including sample collection, sample storage and sample preparation, along with the chain of custody that documents the journey the sample takes along the way – are integral parts of the testing process, no matter how technical a step may seem to us. Labs don’t skip steps and offer up excuses later. When a lab skips a step, it tosses out the result and starts over.
In order for a lab to use a test method, the test method has to be validated – the test itself must be tested. This requires the lab to document the process they’re going to use in testing, and then try out the process to see how it works. If the test is validated, that means that the process has been shown to produce reliable results. Labs are no better than their validated processes. Fail to follow the process, all of the process, and any assumption of validity disappears.
If lab test validation does not speak to you, then consider this: when athletes test positive, they are not permitted to argue that the positive test is a “technicality”. They can’t argue that substance in question did not really enhance their performance. Consider the case of cyclist Alberto Contador, who is facing doping sanctions for the presence in his urine sample of 50 picograms of clenbuterol. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram. That’s not very much stuff, but it was more than enough to strip Contador of his 2010 Tour de France title and to bar him from this year’s Tour.
When an athlete is caught doping, we don’t want to deal with questions of how it happened, or why, or whether the doping did the athlete any good. Those questions take too long to answer, if indeed they can ever be answered. We just sanction the athlete and move on. In the anti-doping world this is called “strict liability”, and anti-doping folks like Travis Tygart defend strict liability to the skies. Strict liability has to work the same way in reverse. When the anti-doping agencies make mistakes, when they fail to follow the procedures they themselves put in place to ensure a fair process, we can’t spend months trying to figure out how the mistake affected the result, or how the result would have come out if the mistake hadn’t been made. We need to toss out the result and move on.
Let’s move on to a second issue: with the mistake made by MLB, can we ever bring the Braun case to a close? “Today was supposed to bring a resolution,” wrote David Schoenfield at ESPN.com. But the system didn’t work, and now we’re “left stranded.” “We don’t know what Ryan Braun did or didn’t do.”
My reply to old friend David is this: we have resolution, or at least, we have all the resolution we’re ever going to get. With drug testing, there are only two classes of athlete: those caught, and those not caught. Braun is now in the second category, the category of the un-caught.
We have every reason to believe that athletes can dope and get away with it. Consider the evidence. Barry Bonds never failed a drug test. Neither did Marion Jones. Numerous cyclists, from Floyd Landis to Tyler Hamilton, are confessed career dopers and were able to get away with doping for years. There are plenty of PEDs for which there are no tests, or where the tests never seem to actually catch anyone (because some of them detoxify safely from drugs). As Victor Conte recently pointed out, some PEDs are so fast-acting that they clear in a matter of hours – unless MLB wants to conduct surprise tests at 3:00 a.m., an athlete can use these drugs without fear of being caught. Conte thinks that 30-40% of baseball players are using PEDs, and while that’s obviously a wild guess, it’s a wild guess by an expert that knows a lot about the subject.
Sorry to be so gloomy. But having won his case, Braun gets to be classified with the other 1,196 major leaguers who tested negative in 2011. He may have doped. He may not have doped. Baseball couldn’t prove he didn’t dope. That’s the best we can say about anyone subjected to PED testing, including the squeakiest-clean baseball player you might imagine.