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Ruminating on the Ryan Braun Reactions

I'll preface this by saying that this post is going to be kind of meandering and meta and touch on some various things I've been thinking about regarding the Ryan Braun suspension, and particularly the reactions, without having any definitive conclusions, or possibly even a point.

So if you want to skip this, feel free. If you want to read along while I think out loud, follow the jump...

First of all, when something like the Ryan Braun news breaks, it reminds me of why I'm glad I'm on Twitter. In terms of getting rapid, immediate reactions from a variety of folks to a big or controversial story, its hard to do better than read a Twitter timeline. Sure, there's a certain amount of self-selection -- my feed is heavier on the stathead-types, although I also follow a lot of mainstream journalists and bloggers -- and 140 characters doesn't allow for a lot of nuance, but in terms of dipping a finger into the opinion stream to take the temperature, Twitter is great.

Secondly, after seeing some reactions, I thought about what Chris Rock said about the O.J. Simpson verdict: "Black people are way too happy, white people are way too mad." In particular, people who either 1) support Braun generally, or 2) think that the issue of PEDs in MLB is overblown and has turned into a witchhunt* seemed to be overreacting to this news.

* I generally place myself in category #2


No, no, a thousand times no. Braun didn't "prove" he was innocent. He proved that the chain of custody requirements that are in place for handling a urine sample that is going to be tested for banned substances were not followed, and that under MLB's own rules, that meant that MLB couldn't act on the results of the test. That's a whole different thing than proving he didn't use PEDs.

Wendy Thurm has a well done explanation on SBN-Baseball on why chain-of-custody matters, and I think everyone should read it. I agree with what she says. I also, however, think that one of her key points is overlooked:

Is Braun innocent? We don't know. It's been reported that Braun provided a urine sample and a testing laboratory determined that the sample contained high doses of testosterone. But we don't know precisely what the collector did with the specimen during the 48 hours in question. And we don't know how the specimen might have become degraded in that time.

Craig Calcaterra objected last night to people saying that Braun got off on a "technicality," saying it is a "ridiculous" stance, and then goes on to say:

And while that, in this case, may work to Braun’s benefit, in the long run adherence to those procedures is critical to the integrity and efficacy of the drug testing process. And that’s far more important than whatever this means for one man’s drug test.

The response I expect to that is “well, just because procedures weren’t followed doesn’t mean that Braun didn’t take something!” My response: you’re right. We don’t know that. And we can’t know that, because the testing program is not nor can it reasonably be expected to be one that decides absolute guilt or absolute innocence. In this it’s just like the criminal justice system which never determines actual innocence. It determines the lack of guilt. It does this because the burden is on the accuser and not the accused, same as with the drug testing procedure.

I'm a lawyer. I get what Thurm and Calcaterra are saying. I absolutely agree that maintaining chain-of-custody integrity is critical for any system of justice to be legitimate. And if the proper chain-of-custody procedures were not followed here (and it appears they weren't), Braun should not be suspended. MLB made the rules and agreed with the MLBPA on the rules, and thus they need to abide by the rules.

But let's take a step back and think about this outside of the legal system paradigm and what this means for the process. A courier took a sample home on a Saturday night and put it in his refrigerator until Monday, when he went to FedEx and sent it out, instead of sending it out Saturday night.

Could somebody have tampered with the sample during that time? Sure. Could the delay, or having it in a refrigerator, have done something to the sample such that it resulted in a false positive? I guess so.

But does that -- should that -- really impact what you and I think of Braun's innocence or guilt? I get the sense that, if you thought Braun probably used before yesterday's news broke, you probably still think he used. And if you think that he probably didn't use, or you weren't sure, before yesterday, yesterday's news probably didn't change your mind.

I had this exchange on Twitter with Dan McLaughlin yesterday:

After an exchange about polygraphs, Dan tweeted this:

Twitter isn't good for nuance, but my point is that there is evidence Braun used -- he had a positive test. The fact that chain-of-custody issues made that evidence inadmissible for the purposes of suspending him doesn't mean that it isn't evidence. I agree with Dan that there is an issue of reliability, but again, just because there is a question about the reliability of the evidence doesn't mean that it isn't evidence at all -- much evidence, ultimately, can be challenged on reliability grounds.

And that's why I said yesterday that this is a worst-case scenario for MLB, a p.r. nightmare, because they have someone who tested positive, who got off (with apologies to Mr. Calcaterra) on a technicality, because the perception is back out there that the game is dirty, because it now looks like the testing program is a joke, and because it makes the people at MLB look like they need to have corks on their forks when they eat dinner so they don't put their own eyes out.

Actually, that's not quite true. Braun is someone who is well-liked and well-regarded around the game, someone the mainstream media seemed more than willing to believe when he professed his innocence.

Could you imagine how different the reaction would be if this were, say, Manny Ramirez, who had gotten out of a suspension by challenging the test on chain-of-custody grounds? Or Alex Rodriguez? Or Hanley Ramirez? Or (when he was playing) Barry Bonds? Or some other player who is seen as a phony, or doesn't treat the press right, or is a jerk in the clubhouse, or doesn't play the right way, or otherwise doesn't fit the mold of what the mainstream baseball media believes a good and proper baseball player should be?

So yeah, it could be worse.

No one should be celebrating this news. This isn't a win for anyone but Ryan Braun and the Milwaukee Brewers -- and even for Braun, it is something of a Pyrrhic victory, because while he gets his suspension reversed, he's still going to be playing under a cloud of suspicion for the rest of his career, and still will be viewed by many as part of the "PED crowd," a guy who cheated and got away with it because of smart lawyering.

This isn't a victory for "the process," or for "the players," or anything like this. This is a loss for everyone. The game's reputation is hurt. Players' reputations are hurt. Those of us who want the steroid issue to go away lose. Ryan Braun's career is irreparably tainted.

And yet, there seems to be a celebration in some quarters of this decision, because MLB's steroid witch hunt has been delivered a blow, or because Bud Selig is embarrassed, or because "the process" was respected. Again, getting back to Chris Rock and O.J. Simpson, I remember Chris Rock saying, "What did we win? Where's my O.J. prize?"

I've fought against the PED witch hunt. I support players against owners. I think MLB, the media, Congress, and many others have grandstanded on this issue, have demonized players who are doing nothing much different than what players have done for almost 150 years, who are scapegoating the players for their own sins. I think the testing policy is invasive and reactionary, and think that this issue has been overblown. I think the decision by the arbitrator, based on the information I have, was the right decision.

So what did I win? Where's my prize? Why should I feel triumphant or pleased with this result? Why should I feel anything other than that this entire episode is a fiasco that gives MLB another black eye?