Braun, Baseball And Getting It Right

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.

68 thoughts on “Braun, Baseball And Getting It Right

  1. But wait…did leaving the sample in a basement cause the sample to contract SYNTHTIC testosterone? He got over on a technicality, never denied using, and was found to have a substance that he knowingly ingested as a synthetic performance enhancing drug.

  2. Larry, I think you make an excellent point about the consequence of a positive test. Put simply, an athlete is strictly liable for a positive test of any substance prohibited under the CBA, whether or not the substance actually enhanced performance or is even capable of enhancing performance. That's the essence of strict liability. Is it so much to ask that the tester be held strictly liable to honor the collectively-bargained process? According to Cot's, Braun will make $7 million this year; a 50 game suspension would cost him over $2 million. That kind of punishment is too draconian for any mishandling of the sample or departure from testing protocol to be deemed a mere technicality.

  3. "Labs are no better than their validated processes. Fail to follow the process, all of the process, and any assumption of validity disappears."

    One of the key components in validating an analytical test method is sample solution stability (at room temp and refrigerated) and a robustness characteristic which would include testing samples *when the process isn't followed*, so it isn't strictly correct to say not following the method means the sample data is tossed. If that happens, you have to check the deviation against the validation parameters which may show that even when tested outside the method, the result is still valid.

    Hope that helps.

  4. I recall reading when the news of his positive test first broke that an unknown number of the players had successfully challenged positive tests prior to the finding being made public, and that Braun's positive test was leaked to the media before he had a chance to challenge the result. Is this accurate? If so, it suggests that the testing process is seriously flawed.

  5. Oh my. Thank-you for the "boring" details – I had no idea they were checking for isotopes of atoms in order to "determine" if there is synthetic testosterone. Or, as you say, the chance of it.

    When MSM reports a failed drug test, the impression that is given is that there IS a worm in the apple. Not that the worm may have crawled over a leaf on the tree and taken a leak.

    With procedures not followed, the leak becomes almost criminal. I can't see Ryan Braun being happy – I guess its better than the guys on death row who get released after 20 years on DNA evidence, but still – not a big career booster to even be associated with the "Cheat" word – regardless if its true or not.

  6. I disagree with the premise by which he was acquited. I hate bringing things like this but I believe if it had been another Dominican player he would have been found guilty regardless.

  7. Elliott, I liked your first comment better. With all due respect, I don't understand the scientific basis of concluding that "there is something up" when the T/E ratio is 20:1, regardless of storage conditions. I think we should strictly determine the direction in which we reason, from cause to effect, and at minimum make sure we don't reason in both directions at once. In drug testing, we reason from process to result: if the lab follows its validated process, then we can trust the result. If not, not. I know of no exception to this rule when the T/E ratio is over 20:1. I do not understand how one starts with the result, ANY result, and reasons backwards to validate (or excuse deviations from) the process — that is, unless you're validating a test on a known standard or population, and you know before you perform the test what the result is supposed to be.

    I'll use an analogy that's not perfect but I think it will serve: if the arson investigator concludes that he can't prove that Mr. X started the fire, we don't argue against him by saying it was a really big fire.

    You're arguing backwards in a second important way: you're asking me to prove how MLB's deviation from validated process could have caused an invalid result. That's not up to me to prove. Lab testing requires validated processes. Argue if you like that MLB followed the validated process. Don't ask me to make meaning out of a process that was never validated. I'll argue that no such meaning is possible, and I'll freely acknowledge that I have no idea how to put the egg back together once it is cracked.

    Regarding your statement about T/E, I assume you're aware that NO ONE thinks that T/E measurements are good for anything other than screening samples for IRMS testing. If you need info on this, just say so.

  8. Ron, even if we assume that someone leaked this information, I do not know that this someone works for MLB. It could have been someone on Braun's team for all I know at present. Or it could have come out accidentally — maybe someone left a key document on the copy machine at the Kinko's.

  9. So how does the players union and MLB improve the process so that 1) false positives in testing occur less frequently, and 2) that the news isn't leaked until after the initial result has gone through arbitration?

    As Larry said in his original (very insightful) post: "We have every reason to believe that athletes can dope and get away with it."

  10. I understand the concern about the science and integrity of samples. I really do. But in the end, I stopped caring about the "integrity" of the game a long time ago. I believe that most of all of the players of today came up in a "balme the other guy" society and mentality. Every one of them has tried to lie their way out of it. What I still DO care about…are the records set by Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Babe Ruth. They weren't perfect either. Hell, I saw Hank smoking a cigarette in the dugout. But I'd guess their peformance wasn't enhanced by injections or pills.

  11. Oh Flloook. Just read Sherman's Hardball – what I said about Braun being under suspicion for the rest of eternity. Proof in his last para – I won't do a cut and paste, so I don't violate rules – but…

    He maintains that IF Braun wants to clear his name, he needs to hire an outside, independent lab, and have weekly BLOOD tests, and then publish the results. OK – so we don't care about box scores any more – even if the poor guy did that, folks would maintain that he could just take the drugs around the testing and still dodge.

    I'm sorry – but it looks like the inmates want to run the asylum.

  12. The best thing about waking up in the middle of the night is reading a great article by Larry. I agree 100%, lab process not followed then results are inconclusive. The question of whether Braun is guilty or not doesn't matter anymore. The question becomes why wasnt protocol followed. For some reason this case reminds me of Roger Clemen's trainer. Why would you keep needles that you injected him with? Now my new aurstion is why would you keep a urine sample at home?

  13. Very interesting article and discussion. But if I could, I'd like to take a step back for a minute and ask a simple question. Has there actually been any acknowledgement that there was a finding of synthetic testosterone? Other than rumor or speculation from a leak?

  14. Larry – if you wouldn't mind, based on what you know about all of this, what is your opinion on the testosterone component of testing in general?

    Would you prefer to see the T/E eliminated and all samples use the CIR test as some have suggested?

    The more I've read, the more I think that due to the way testosterone is metabolized by the body, the vast variation of natural body chemistries, and just how difficult it is to differentiate between andro & exogenous testosterone, this aspect of testing just isn't ready "ready for prime time" to the degree required for us to trust the system. While false positives & convicting the innocent type errors are certainly the most troubling possibility, at the very least, given the success of beating the system that we know of from BALCO, it doesn't seem good enough at catching the cheaters to justify all of the other concerns.

  15. Locke, mmm.

    I have a concern about false positives in doping tests. But I want to be an honest reporter, so I have to say: not too many people share my concern. If you want to dive deeper into this problem, you should look for work by Donald Berry, who is a medical statistician. Berry might ask first, how many false positive tests would we be willing to live with? One a year? One every five years? One every ten years? Depending on our aversion for false positives, you'd have to perform test validation on potentially thousands of biodiverse and geodiverse subjects, rather than the dozens that are typical in test populations.

    But I think the mainstream argument, one made by smart and responsible voices, is that we shouldn't worry too much about false positives. If the tests were only 99.9% accurate against false positives, we still expect to see a few false positive tests every year (roughly 3,600 tests were run annually under baseball's old collective bargaining agreement, with more tests than this scheduled under the new deal). We're just not seeing anything that looks like that. These same mainstream voices will argue (with good supporting evidence) that the rules are designed to avoid false positives, that the anti-doping forces have built in controls and safeguards in an effort to prevent false positives. Some will argue (again with cause) that these safeguards result in a goodly amount of false negative results — that as a result of our desire to make sure that the innocent do not suffer, a number of the guilty can get away with doping.

    I understand your comment about not being "ready for prime time", but I think that the right metaphor is something else. Doping is growing harder to detect, not easier. It's comparatively easy to test for stuff like amphetamines, which are not produced naturally by the body. It's a lot more difficult to test for doping that's done with substances the body produces naturally. Over time, doping comes to more closely resemble natural human biochemistry. Consider this: CIR testing for testosterone is based on the theory that exogenous testosterone is manufactured from stuff like soy, that is naturally light in carbon 13. But not all plants share this property. If testosterone can be manufactured from corn (and I'm not saying that it can, though I'm curious), the CIR test would be useless, because corn is not light in carbon 13.

    So, what do we do?

    One possible solution is to look to the "biological passport" that's been put into place in cycling. There's no way I can accurately describe how the biological passport works in a comment. But in essence, conventional testing is a one-time snapshot, while the biological passport is a motion picture. Conventional testing looks for drugs separately; the biological passport looks at numbers of biologically related measurements in combination. Conventional testing names the PED; the biological passport tells us that something is going on with the athlete's biomarkers that is highly unusual in the absence of some form of doping. Conventional testing looks for a drug; the biological passport looks for the EFFECT of the drug. And so on.

    At the moment, the biological passport focuses on blood biomarkers associated with cardiovascular capacity, such as red blood cell populations. We don't have a biological passport in place to detect use of anabolic steroids. There are other problems with the biological passport, including the need for frequent testing and the considerable complexity of trying to determine what is "normal" when looking at a combination of factors changing over time. Also, it's pretty clear that athletes CAN cheat the passport — the passport sets up limits on what is cheating, but athletes CAN cheat within those limits.

    I think this is what it comes down to. We can hope for an anti-doping system that will keep doping within limits, and perhaps deter the more risk-averse from doping at all. There WILL be a cost for all this: more testing, more invasive testing, more expensive testing. Whether the effort is worth requires a cost-benefit analysis, where the cost is uncertain and the benefits even more so. The bottom line may be, what kind of sport are you interested in watching?

    For me, I have no interest in baseball at the moment we assume that a particular ballplayer is probably doping, based on nothing more than what we know or think we know about the nature and extent of doping in baseball as a general matter. Your mileage may vary.

  16. Is it possible that the Ryan arbitration case was ruled in his favor not because the sample was compromised (not preserved or refrigerated) or that the analysis was conducted improperly (tech did not follow protocol exactly) but that the chain-of-custody was questioned and ruled invalid?