Why did Ryan Braun challenge baseball’s drug testing system? Answer coming…

Count me among the sports fans who believe that sports commissioners shouldn’t be mistaken for dictators; presumption of innocence does precede all else; and that The Constitution of the United States also applies to millionaires paid to play kid games. With that in mind, I find myself supremely conflicted when assessing what is the real meaning behind Ryan Braun’s overturned positive drug test and 50-game suspension.

While giving a hard look at hard evidence, I believe that: 1) Braun “knowingly” cheated before he knowingly “misremembered”; 2) the decision may very well have been legally correct if MLB botched the handling of the Braun’s urine sample; and  3) after Ryan’s virtuoso of a press conference, “The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin should hand over his Oscar to Braun just on principle.

Speaking of principles, there are some that are greater than Braun’s guilt or innocence.

Most importantly — as pointed out by ESPN’s Howard Bryant — this case was settled by an independent third party arbitrator. In an era of “commissioners-gone-wild”, a little independence is good. It is certainly better than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell playing judge, jury, and God while routinely suspending players before any legal convictions or even before being in the league (see Terrelle Pryor). It is certainly better than NBA Commish David Stern fining the free speech out of players or issuing unilateral league altering decisions without an appeals process. And if anyone was shocked at Stern’s recent blockage of the Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade, please see Stern’s declaration after the 2004 suspension of Ron Artest:

“It was unanimous: 1-0”.

This is the unabashed tyranny of what sports has become.

But instead, Braun’s appeal was a 2-1 vote from an independent panel.

Regardless of outcome — the words “split decision” in and of itself represents major progress.

Or does it?

And for whom?

Was the decision a symbol of “progress” or “privilege”? Was it more about “right” or “white”?

Braun’s post press conference celebration is worth a look. Braun held the sports media throng spellbound with a respect and deference not seen since Andy Pettitte lied to the sound of great media praise. When it came time for questions after Braun’s statement, the sports writers traded in their profession for pom-poms:

Instead of: “Ryan, do you believe that your  2011 MVP award is ‘tainted’?”, Braun was asked:

Do you feel robbed of the chance to enjoy your MVP, and what does it mean to have your teammates in the stands today?”

Instead of: “Major League Baseball said that they ‘vehemently disagreed’ with the ruling? Why do you think they disagreed so strongly”?, Braun was asked:

“What is your reaction to MLB’s reaction?” and “Does it bother you that MLB came out and said you won on a technicality and that it might shade others’ views of you?

Instead of a series of critical questions on tampering such as:

  • “Sources say that you chose not to dispute the positive test itself to the arbitration panel. Why not?”
  • “You stated that you ‘would bet your life’ that synthetic testosterone never entered your body. Without tampering what possible alternative is there?”
  • “You have stated three times today that you have been “proven innocent”. Wouldn’t that require that you prove tampering?”

Braun was asked:

  • Do you believe the test collector tampered with your sample?”
  • “How difficult do you think it will be for you to regain your previous reputation?”
  • “Did you ever think ‘Why me?’”

Repeat: “Did you ever think ‘Why me?'”

To call what transpired a softball interview is too disrespectful to the sport. After a 7-year investigation, millions in legal fees, and being the first all-star caliber player blackballed since baseball segregation, has anyone asked Barry Bonds “why him”?

Most troubling, if less detectable, is how Braun’s case is discussed in sports media with a cool analytical legal lens.  Why do so many sports writers suddenly turn into Roger Cossack when discussing Braun, but outraged moralists when accusations without verdicts fall the way of Barry, ARod, and Manny?

“The Legal Shield” is part of a pattern where white athletes routinely get preferential media treatment. Just earlier this month, ESPN.com opened up with the news: “Los Angeles — The case against Lance Armstrong is closed. His legacy as a seven-time Tour de France champion endures.”

For Lance and Ryan, legality helps to drive media legacy. For Bonds, frequent legal dismissals and delays were also met by an additional media-inspired verdict: “the court of public opinion“. For Bonds, it was media legacy that even helped drive legality — but that’s for a longer article.

The struggle here is not whether Braun’s whiteness helped his media legacy, but whether it also helped his legal case.

Did both judges voting in favor of Braun only process facts, or did they also subconsciously (or consciously) process the same innocent indignation that led media members to fawn over Braun? Possibly. Another interesting theory suggests that deciding arbitrator Shyam Das ruled in favor of Braun to help protect his own job and be seen as a”neutral” party.

In the end, if the Braun appeal is truly a victory for “due process”, independent” judges, and worker rights, then it is a victory.

If the decision is largely a victory limited to white player rights, then it is no victory at at all.

What is clearer is why Ryan Braun challenged baseball’s drug testing system in the first place.

Because he can.


 UPDATEIn an email sent today to ESPN The Magazine’s Buster Olney and other media outlets, Dino Laurenzi Jr., the person responsible for collecting Braun’s urine issued this statement “to set the record straight” about his role in testing Braun, whose 50-game suspension under baseball’s drug policy was overturned Thursday. Laurenzi denies any breach in procedure in his collection process.

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