The strange case of Ryan Braun, the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player who tested positive for steroids during the post-season play-offs, once again raises the perplexing ethical issue of fairness when formal procedures concerning alleged wrongdoing are involved.
Braun’s positive test sent a shudder throughout baseball. He was supposed to be one of the game’s rising young “post-steroid era” stars. For Braun to be caught cheating was a discouraging reminder that the game had not left its disastrous days of pumped-up stars and dubious records behind: now the legitimacy of an MVP season was being called into question. Braun vehemently denied the charges (as every positive-testing player has) and appealed them, a move that had been futile in every previous case. To literally everyone’s surprise, however, the three member arbitration panel ruled 2-1 in Braun’s favor. Although the report of the independent arbitrator who cast the deciding vote has yet to be released, the reason Braun prevailed appears to be that the Major League Baseball contractor who had responsibility for sending Braun’s urine samples to the testing facilities had to store them at his house for the weekend because FedEx had closed before he could mail them to the lab. This created a sufficient break in the chain of custody, it seems, to make the results invalid.
Braun immediately gave a public statement in which he claimed to be exonerated, and, rather unwisely, impugned the integrity of the man who collected the sample. That man, Dino Laurenzi, gave a statement to the press which said in part:
“On February 24th, Ryan Braun stated during his press conference that “there were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened”…I am issuing this statement to set the record straight.
“My full-time job is the director of rehabilitation services at a health care facility. In the past, I have worked as a teacher and an athletic trainer, including performing volunteer work with Olympic athletes. I am a member of both the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the Wisconsin Athletic Trainers’ Association. I have been a drug collector for Comprehensive Drug Testing since 2005 and have been performing collections for Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program since that time. I have performed over 600 collections for MLB and also have performed collections for other professional sports leagues. I have performed post-season collections for MLB in four separate seasons involving five different clubs.
“On October 1, 2011, I collected samples from Mr. Braun and two other players….I followed the same procedure in collecting Mr. Braun’s sample as I did in the hundreds of other samples I collected under the Program. I sealed the bottles containing Mr. Braun’s A and B samples with specially-numbered, tamper-resistant seals, and Mr. Braun signed a form certifying, among other things, that the specimens were capped and sealed in his presence and that the specimen identification numbers on the top of the form matched those on the seals.
“I placed the two bottles containing Mr. Braun’s samples in a plastic bag and sealed the bag. I then placed the sealed bag in a standard cardboard Specimen Box which I also sealed with a tamper-resistant, correspondingly-numbered seal placed over the box opening. I then placed Mr. Braun’s Specimen Box, and the Specimen Boxes containing the samples of the two other players, in a Federal Express Clinic Pack. None of the sealed Specimen Boxes identified the players. I completed my collections at Miller Park at approximately 5:00 p.m. Given the lateness of the hour that I completed my collections, there was no FedEx office located within 50 miles of Miller Park that would ship packages that day or Sunday.
“Therefore, the earliest that the specimens could be shipped was Monday, October 3. In that circumstance, CDT has instructed collectors since I began in 2005 that they should safeguard the samples in their homes until FedEx is able to immediately ship the sample to the laboratory, rather than having the samples sit for one day or more at a local FedEx office…The FedEx Clinic Pack containing Mr. Braun’s samples never left my custody. Consistent with CDT’s instructions, I brought the FedEx Clinic Pack containing the samples to my home. Immediately upon arriving home, I placed the FedEx Clinic Pack in a Rubbermaid container in my office which is located in my basement. My basement office is sufficiently cool to store urine samples. No one other than my wife was in my home during the period in which the samples were stored. The sealed Specimen Boxes were not removed from the FedEx Clinic Pack during the entire period in which they were in my home. On Monday, October 3, I delivered the FedEx Clinic Pack containing Mr. Braun’s Specimen Box to a FedEx office for delivery to the laboratory on Tuesday, October 4. At no point did I tamper in any way with the samples. It is my understanding that the samples were received at the laboratory with all tamper-resistant seals intact….”
Now, nobody has to allege or believe that Laurenzi actually tampered with the specimens. It would be, and apparently was, enough for the arbitration panel to believe that for the specimens to be in the possession of non-laboratory personnel for more than 24 hours undermined the integrity of the testing procedure, invalidating Braun’s results. With something as career-staining as a positive drug test, and with the punishment so severe (Braun would have been suspended for 50 games to begin the 2012 season, costing him millions and seriously handicapping his team, the Milwaukee Brewers), it is right and just that testing procedures be unimpeachable. Nevertheless, the result leaves us with an ethical dilemma: What is fair to Ryan Braun?
Whatever Ryan Braun did, he did in spite of that surprising arbitrator’s vote. If he was guilty of cheating, the vote didn’t make him innocent, and if he was innocent, he wouldn’t have become guilty if the arbitrator had voted the other way. Thus Braun’s successful appeal alters forever the consequences Braun will suffer, but it doesn’t dictate how reasonable fans should feel about him. In 2012, there are great baseball players who have been excluded from baseball’s Hall of Fame, or will be, because baseball writers suspect them of being steroid users, even though they never tested positive in any test, tainted or otherwise. Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens head the list. If Ryan Braun goes on to be one of baseball’s all-time greats, will he join the suspected and snubbed, barring a complete turnaround in the sport’s attitude toward performance-enhancing drugs?
I think he will. And in his case (unlike that of Bagwell), I don’t think it will be unfair. Though Braun’s tests were correctly thrown out, it seems far less likely to me that Laurenzi inexplicably decided to frame Ryan Braun than it does that Braun was the undeserving beneficiary of moral luck. But if we have to choose between competing unfairness, isn’t it better to risk allowing a cheater to have an undeserved second chance at a clean reputation, than to take the alternative risk, less probable but more unjust, of forcing an innocent athlete to have his career and reputation forever blighted by something he didn’t do?
I’m not sure, and the added problem is this: even if I agree with that last sentence, I can’t help how I think. I think, based on what I know, that Braun cheated and lucked out.
And if he’s innocent, that’s terribly unfair.
Note: If you want to follow this story, which is very much ongoing, NBC Sports blogger/attorney Craig Calcaterra is covering it thoroughly and well. Here’s his latest.
[Ugh! When this was initially posted, I had a major brain cramp and repeatedly referred to Ryan Braun, the player at issue, as Steve Braun, a decent infielder for the Minnesota Twins who has been retired for almost two decades now. I apologize to Steve, I apologize to Ryan, I apologize to everybody. My wife is right: too much baseball trivia banging around inside my skull.]