Ryan Braun Makes a Kind of HistoryDave Zirin on February 24, 2012
Something historic happened this week in the world of sports and, for once, I'm not talking about Jeremy Lin. Milwaukee Brewers slugger, and reigning National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun, appealed and beat a looming 50 game suspension for failing a steroid test. This marks the first time in history that a baseball player has successfully challenged a steroid-related penalty.
"I am very pleased and relieved by today's decision," Braun said in a statement. "It is the first step in restoring my good name and reputation. We were able to get through this because I am innocent and the truth is on our side…..We provided complete cooperation throughout, despite the highly unusual circumstances. I have been an open book, willing to share details from every aspect of my life as part of this investigation, because I have nothing to hide. I have passed over 25 drug tests in my career, including at least three in the past year.
Braun beat the suspension because of a bizarre set of circumstances surrounding his drug test that seems like the plot of an awful movie that could be called “Brotherhood of the Traveling Urine Sample." As ESPN reported, “... the collector, after getting Braun's sample, was supposed to take the sample to a FedEx Office for shipping. But the source said the collector thought the FedEx Office was closed because it was late on a Saturday and felt the sample wouldn't get shipped until Monday. As has occurred in some other instances, the collector took the sample home and kept it in a cool place, in his basement at his residence in Wisconsin.”
Yes, the reigning National League MVP and arguably the highest profile player to ever test positive for steroids, had his good name destroyed and it was all based around a piss test left in a cold, Wisconsin basement. As Barry Petchesky of Deadspin wrote, “If the procedure is so f--ked up that some dude can keep a jar of Ryan Braun's pee in his fridge over the weekend, then maybe Major League Baseball should worry less about Ryan Braun's appeal and more about a chain of custody that relies on a courier knowing the hours of his local Kinkos.”
The response to Braun's acquittal by Major League Baseball and their testers, the US Anti-Doping Agency, has been nothing short of spiteful. MLB’s official comment was, "While we have always respected that process, Major League Baseball vehemently disagrees with the decision.” Behind the scenes, they have been described as “enraged” with the arbitrator’s decision.
The USADA CEO Travis Tygert said, "It's frankly unreal. And it's a kick in the gut to clean athletes... To have this sort of technicality of all technicalities let a player off ... it's just a sad day for all the clean players and those that abide by the rules within professional baseball.”
It’s not just Major League Baseball and their professional urine brigade that's up in arms. Reporters like Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News have made clear that, aqcuittal or not, Ryan Braun has not cleared his name. “Understand something: The overturning of Braun’s 50-game suspension doesn’t mean Braun is clean, no matter what he says or how many times he says it or what he expects reasonable people to believe. He wasn’t exonerated. He was acquitted. There’s a difference."
But as Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan also wrote, quite logically, “This, by the way, is how it's supposed to work. If the penalty is 50 games and millions of $, the process better be PRISTINE.”
The remarkable lack of grace being shown by Major League Baseball is stunning. It’s understandable why the USADA is upset. Their entire for-profit business model is built around finding and rooting out the players who, as Tygert said, aren’t “clean.” Imagine if police officers were only paid per-arrest and you get a picture of why the USADA already is viewed with suspicion by players and the union.
Baseball executives are sour they didn’t get to lower the hammer and are saying that Braun was only found not guilty because of a “technicality.” But as Gabe Feldman from the Tulane Sports Law Center wrote, “Chain of custody a ‘technicality’? It's critical to fair drug policy, and is mentioned 33 times in the MLB drug policy.”
Major League Baseball is more upset because they need scalps to justify to congress, sportswriters, and the minority of fans that care, that they are serious about cleaning up the game and drug testing isn’t mere window dressing. As the baseball writers dean, Peter Gammons wrote, after Braun had already been convicted in the press, “ ….what the Braun test result tells is that the Commissioner's Office and the players don't care if it's the MVP or a 4A utility infielder, they want a level playing field. Thus, in a sense, this speaks for the sincerity of the program, that it doesn't protect the faces of the sport or anyone's favorites, that Ryan Braun gets no different treatment than some kid in the Dominican Summer League."
Very noble. Yet amidst all the steroid hysteria, is a person, Ryan Braun, who actually has rights. In baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s worldview, that means he has the right to shoot himself up with painkillers, chew tobacco, and drink himself blind, but no right to use even prescribed steroids. If that’s the kind of world the union wants to collectively bargain, then that’s their choice. It’s a choice with which I disagree. This is just the cultural sanctioning of a war on drugs mentality that’s been great for the prison industry, but awful for the rest of us. I can certainly understand why players want the right to not feel like they need to take steroids to compete with the guy in the next locker. But Braun also has the right to not have his urine stored in a basement. He has the right to not have had the test results revealed before his appeal. He has the right to some dignity through this process. We don’t know at end whether Ryan Braun is “dirty.” But we know that baseball and their drug testing system has deep flaws which should be seen as intolerable not just to Ryan Braun and Major League players, but to all of us.
Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.