Major League Baseball holds suspected steroid users guilty until proven innocent. But these suspects are at least granted an opportunity to prove themselves innocent before an independent arbitrator as outlined by MLB’s collective bargaining agreement. In the court of public opinion, no such privilege is granted.
Despite successfully clearing his name before an arbitration panel, reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun has been irrevocably convicted in the public eye. Braun’s failed test result was leaked to the public before he had a chance to successfully defend himself, and the Commissioner’s Office is unquestionably to blame. What’s worse, the Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder is not the first victim of MLB’s serious confidentiality problem.
On Oct. 1, Braun provided a routine urine sample after a playoff game. Eighteen days later, he was informed that he his sample contained sky-high levels of artificial testosterone. He would be suspended for 50 games at the start of the 2012 season. The test results, however, would not be revealed until Braun had been given an opportunity to appeal, as clearly stated in the CBA. Braun indeed chose to appeal the ruling but was shocked when ESPN reported news of his failed test Dec. 10. The left fielder immediately shot down the result and went on to win his Feb. 23 appeal, two votes to one. The three-man arbitration panel consisted of representatives from the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association as well as an independent arbitrator (who ruled in Braun’s favor).
Braun won the appeal by convincing arbitrator Shyam Das that the chain of custody surrounding his sample had been broken. After collecting the sample at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct 1., the testing official took it home for the weekend on the incorrect grounds that the Fedex shipping location was closed for the weekend. Samples are meant to be brought to Fedex immediately, where a player’s name becomes a number and thus full objectivity is ensured. The 44-hour window during which the sample sat in the official’s home refrigerator was enough to convince the arbitrator to throw out Braun’s negative test.
Maybe he did it. Maybe he took steroids. Maybe the testing official tampered with the urine, or maybe that was just a convenient defense by Braun’s legal team. Maybe, as suggested by some, Braun was too embarrassed to admit that the test result was actually caused by herpes medication. At the end of the day, only Braun and the urine tester will know for sure what happened. But all of that is beside the point.
What’s most troubling about this case is not a league MVP’s failed drug test but rather the alarming breach of confidentiality by the Commissioner’s Office. MLB has a strict policy under which Braun’s failed test should not have been made public until he had been given every chance to prove his innocence. And he did prove his innocence. Unfortunately for Braun, his test result was leaked prematurely and the case immediately entered the court of public opinion. Braun and the Players Association certainly didn’t leak it, and no one else but the Commissioner’s Office had knowledge of the failed test. (Even the testing lab only knew Braun as an anonymous number.) MLB had a responsibility to uphold its confidentiality agreement under the CBA, and it failed completely. It’s not the first time.
Baseball began routine steroid tests in 2003. All failed tests from the initial year were supposed to remain completely anonymous — the Commissioner’s Office was responsible for destroying the list of 100 steroid abusers identified that year. For reasons never made clear, the results were not destroyed and fell into the hands of federal agents investigating the role of steroids in professional sports. The Players Association and the government are still locked in a legal battle over possession of the list. Over time, names have been leaked.
David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez were the most high-profile victims. Despite the promise of anonymity, both were outed publicly as steroid abusers. Ortiz chose to deny the allegations, while Rodriguez confessed. Both, however, were dragged over the coals in the court of public opinion. Manny Ramirez would have suffered the same fate had he not already failed another drug test in 2009. Other “anonymous” violators included Sammy Sosa, Jason Grimsley, David Segui and Barry Bonds.
Taking steroids is not cool. It leads to a whole host of health problems and compromises baseball’s level playing field. It sends a terrible message about cutting corners to legions of young fans. It has cast a shadow over two decades that might otherwise be regarded as the most exciting in the history of the game. There is no defense for taking steroids.
But that’s not what is at stake here. MLB has a responsibility to preserve the confidentiality of its players as clearly outlined in its CBA. The integrity of its testing program depends on it. Even steroid abusers should feel confident in their rights as guaranteed in baseball’s bylaws. Those accused are given the opportunity to overturn their suspensions by proving themselves innocent before an independent arbitrator. In the court of public opinion, however, proving oneself innocent is not possible. Ryan Braun will forever suffer the stigma of a crime that, according to baseball’s clearly defined appeals procedure, he did not commit.
During his post-appeal press conference, Braun announced he would hold back from revealing full details of the case out of respect for the confidentiality of the process and the best interests of the game. I only wish MLB had as much respect for the game as the very man they have defamed.