I was wrong, wasn’t I?

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.

11 thoughts on “I was wrong, wasn’t I?

  1. Nice work Mike. I’ve struggled a bit with the implications of the decision as well, and have gotten a little fed up with the “now Braun is innocent” backlash that accompanied the decision. There is no doubt that the leaking of the test result was wrong and suspending Braun following a compromised chain of custody was wrong as well.

    However, I have heard no plausible argument for how the sample could have been switched or tainted. A false positive is certainly possible with this type of test, but I understand your skepticism.

    As for offer to match DNA to the urine sample, I’m pretty sure that DNA can’t be obtained from a urine sample (I remember reading that somewhere, but I could be mistaken).

    • 1)False positive-less than 1% chance

      2)Tampering-No evidence to support whatsoever

      3)Braun failed PED test-Known fact

      Anyone proclaiming innocence is either a conspiracy theorist or someone who is looking for any excuse to move on, since they don’t support testing to begin with.

        • I don’t disagree with most of what he wrote. The standards are there for a reason, and failing to follow them means the test is disallowed. That said, there’s no explanation for why synthetic testosterone and triple the normal amount of natural testosterone would magically appear in his urine from failing to follow those predetermined guidelines. Legally he’s not culpable, common sense tells you he’s guilty.

          What I should have made more clear was that I was objecting to the word “innocent” which I think is misused by his defenders.

          • roadrider

            That said, there’s no explanation for why synthetic testosterone and triple the normal amount of natural testosterone would magically appear in his urine from failing to follow those predetermined guidelines.

            First of all, the initial screening test measures a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone. I don’t know if they also measure the absolute concentrations of these compounds (I think they do but I’m not sure) but in any case, it’s the ratio not the absolute concentration of testosterone that is considered a sign of a possible violation which is then confirmed by the carbon isotope ratio test.

            I’ not a chemist and I won’t pretend that I know the ins and outs of the CIR test but from what I’ve read they’re measuring a tiny (and I do mean tiny) difference in the ratio of C-13 to C12 atoms in the testosterone in the sample to endogenous testosterone. It’s amazing that they can do this but it’s certain that such an exacting, sensitive test measuring such a tiny difference in the chemical makeup of a compound must be performed according to a validated protocol (that is – one that has been established to produce reliable results). One can’t simply alter the protocol and expect the same reliability. Small changes in the protocol for sample handling might not have an effect on the reliability of the test but there’s no way to know without performing a validation of those changes. Clearly when used in a setting such as drug testing where severe penalties and public condemnation are sure to follow a positive test there can be excuse for not following the established protocol.

            It’s not a question of synthetic testosterone magically appearing in the sample. The CIR test not like finding a worm in an apple or dipping a strip of litmus paper in vinegar. The result is a scientific inference with a non-zero level of uncertainty in the reliability of the result. If the tester can not document that the sample was handled and the test conducted in the precise manner specified by the validated protocol then the results of the test cannot be trusted.

            Furthermore, Braun’s legal team has apparently demonstrated that the results of his test could be reproduced by precisely the changes in handling of his sample that occurred:

            http://www.chadmoriyama.com/2012/02/ryan-braun-what-you-dont-know-about-his-case-is-important/

            So, yes, there is a scientific explanation for the results. Whether that’s through bacterial or fungal contamination or preferential degradation of epitestosterone I couldn’t tell you but I hope that information will be made public.

  2. smurfy

    Mike I like your analysis right up to the overall conclusion, that for entertainment value, you would prefer pro athlete to manage their chemicals freely.

    The McGwire-Sosa battle was a sham, complete with hugs. Blah! The game was perverted from an exciting and variegated contest of running, hitting, catching and throwing to waiting on the big bomb. Double blah!

    Posing, trotting, kiss the sky, oh my what fun!

  3. Andy In Sunny Daytona

    If Braun is innocent then he should look into partnering up with GNC or some other supplement company. He’s a miracle of science. His urine can turn into a synthetic testosterone by refrigerating it for just 2 days.

  4. Long Gone

    Anyone esle think its fishy that the courier who just so happend to be the testers son and Ryan Braun’s chaperone, just decided to keep the sample at his house over the weekend, leading to the riening MVP and a Milwaukee Brewer, being the only player not to get susupended for his positive test? I’m not much of a consparcy theorist but something seems wrong with this.

  5. roadrider

    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).

    I suggest you listen to Will Caroll’s report on this matter before you start pontificating about the nature of Braun’s appeal. Apparently, Braun’s legal team was able to demonstrate how the handling of Braun’s sample could have led to a false positive test.

    http://audio.weei.com/a/52238582/will-carroll-si-com-on-ryan-braun-s-50-game-suspension-being-overturned.htm

    nor did they prove that his specimen did not have twenty times the amount of testosterone it should have (synthetic in nature).

    The inital screening test is for a ratio between testosterone and epitestosterone. It doesn’t necessarily say say anything about the amount of testosterone present. For a guy writing on a site devoted to statistical analysis of baseball performance this is a curious display of innumeracy.

    You may have admitted you were wrong but you still don’t know what you’re talking about on this issue.

  6. Pastor Carl

    I take a little bit of umbrage at the broad brush accusation that ‘all athletes cheat to some degree.’ Using exclusive terms like ‘all’ is a bit unfair to the many who in fact are not cheaters. So what…care to guess how Derek is a cheater, or CC, or Brett Gardner, or David Wright, or any number of others? I understand that passions run high on this issue but this wording taints all athletes and that doesn’t seem fair to me.

  7. Hi everyone. Thank you for taking the time to read the post. I appreciate it.

    The Ryan Braun situation will generate a lot of passion on both sides, which is why I was hesitant to write this post (obvioulsy, in the end I did).

    I just want to add two thoughts to this:

    First, if it is actually the case that Braun’s suspension was overturned due to science and not technicality, then the vast majority of the news coverage surrounding this does not present the case in this fashion. That is a huge difference, and one that should be made more public if it is true.

    Second, I personally don’t care one iota about PEDs in sports. (I openly wonder if I would feel the same way if I were a father.) I care about the witch hunts and distractions that follow them. This entire situation surrounding Braun is an example of just how badly MLB handles these situations.

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