When news of Ryan Braun‘s failed PED test first broke, I quickly wrote a post proclaiming his failed test a black eye for the game. But I was hasty in my judgement. Those who posted in the comments section rightly pointed out that it wasn’t clear that Braun had failed the test, that an appeal was taking place. In response, I said that if Braun’s suspension was overturned I would declare that I was wrong, right here on the blog. Well, I was wrong.
Wait, was I wrong? Things aren’t entirely as the headlines have proclaimed. Braun did successfully overturn his suspension, but the details of his appeal leave much to be desired. His lawyers did not prove that his test was a false positive, nor did they prove that his specimen did not have twenty times the amount of testosterone it should have (synthetic in nature). Instead, they attacked the chain of custody of the specimen. They were able to raise enough doubts about what happened to Braun’s specimen between when it was collected and when it reached the lab that the deciding arbitrator voted down the suspension. The laboratory, however, maintains that his specimen was suitable for testing, that he failed the test.
Braun’s lawyers were smart. His number one goal is to overturn his suspension so he can play. How he achieves that is fungible so long as he wins. There were cracks in how MLB handled the specimen. A smart defense would attack that weakness. They did, and they succeeded. Braun and his defenders, however, are using this technical victory as a means of proclaiming that he was innocent all along. They’ve proven that he can still play. They have not proven that his specimen was clean. MLB is adamant about this and make no mistake, baseball has a vested interest in Braun’s innocence. Its bad for the sport if the reigning NL MVP misses fifty games over steroids. Unfortunately, it is also bad for the sport if he exploits a loophole in the system to suppress his suspension, but does not successfully convince the game’s masters of his innocence, which is precisely what happened.
It is important to note that Braun’s side did offer to have the tainted sample tested against his DNA to prove his innocence. Accounts of what happened next that I have read vary. I’ve read that MLB declined his offer. I’ve also read that his side later withdrew that offer. It is clear why Braun’s side would withdraw the offer. If a technical victory is in sight, it is stupid to go for a complete victory and risk losing. Why MLB would decline the offer, however, is not clear, unless secretly the powers that be in the game wanted a high profile suspension to demonstrate the seriousness of their testing policy. We’ll never know. Braun is exonerated, on technicality, and whether or not he actually cheated is difficult to say.
For my part, even though I am running a post in which I admit to having been wrong (I’m a man of my word), do I believe Braun is a cheater? God yes! Here’s the thing, though, they all cheat. The reason I cynically embrace the guilt of every professional athlete in every sport who fails a drug test is because it is in their better interests to cheat. Fortunes are on the line. They’d be dumb not to cheat. I would do the same in their shoes, in a heartbeat.
Whether it’s Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez, or the entire NFL, time and time again whenever athletes are scrutinized it turns out that none of them is entirely clean. Instead, to cope with the stress they put on their bodies they all embrace shades of gray in terms of what they put in their bodies. There is probably a finer line between those who explicitly cheat and those who use substances and healing agents that push the boundaries of ethics than we realize. This would explain why athletes occasionally fail tests unwittingly. That’s what happens if you are purposefully trying to find substances that serve the same function as PEDs, but won’t trigger a test failure. So, I say it again. All athletes probably cheat to some degree. Some just do it more than others, and better.
On a final note, I don’t care. If I had my way, we’d allow professional athletes to do what is necessary for their bodies, and for the entertainment value of the game. It was not bad for baseball when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa took steroids. It was demonstrably good for baseball. It was bad for baseball when they were caught years later and a witch hunt ensued. The same is true for what just took place with Ryan Braun.