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Ryan Braun Case: PED Attitudes Changing?

A week after the arbitration ruling in favor of Ryan Braun, the controversy over the arbitrator’s ruling shows no sign of abating. Eno Sarris did a good job of explaining why the decision did nothing to calm the furor: “Science — or the collectively bargained scientific process, at the very least — determined that his test did not stand up to scrutiny.” The problem is that science is a very different thing than the collectively bargained scientific process. The scientific process requires a hypothesis to be tested, but in this case, the hypothesis was not, “Did Ryan Braun use a banned substance?” Instead, it was, “Did Major League Baseball follow the collectively bargained procedures to prove that Ryan Braun used a banned substance?”

MLB clearly screwed up, not just by being blindsided by a loophole in the legal language of the steroid bargaining agreement, but also by leaking Braun’s name so that a normally secret process was carried out in the open. (UPDATE: My assumption on the leak was incorrect. A report has emerged that the leak came from someone Braun’s defense team spoke to.) There have been previous cases in which a player has beaten a steroid rap — but none of those players’ names have been released publicly, which is why MLB was able to claim that no player had ever done it before. Likewise, as Eno said, MLB VP Rob Manfred sounded ineffectual and petty when he condemned the ruling that had gone against him.

But Buster Olney writes today that a curious thing has happened since the ruling. Off the record, a number of players and others in the game have been siding against Braun. They feel that Braun managed to cheat the system, and by extension, to cheat them. “I don’t think anybody wants to be faced with the choice of either taking drugs or possibly losing their job,” a player told Olney. “If somebody cheats, that’s a problem for all of us.”

As Olney writes:

I’m guessing I’ve had 30 to 40 conversations with different folks around the sport, a small sample for sure. But a decade ago you might have found three or four players among those 40 who criticized a fellow player. Rather, the vast majority would’ve recited the strong words from their union meetings about their privacy rights, about the pitfalls of testing, about how any suggestion of drug testing by the owners was really designed to undermine their livelihood.

But if this recent straw poll of players is a proper reflection of the union as a whole, there has been a dramatic shift of thought among the brethren. I’m guessing 80 to 90 percent of the players I spoke with expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome of last week’s case, in varying degrees. Some agents and executives say they’ve drawn the same responses in their conversations with players.

I’ve criticized MLB many times in this column. (I’m still unhappy that there are going to be 10 playoff teams this year and forever after.) And I believe that they deserve a lot of the blame for the way this case was handled, from the leak to the disputed procedure to their legal strategy. As ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson notes, Braun’s lawyers outflanked MLB not once but twice:

The Braun defense team identified 12 FedEx offices where he could have delivered the sample in accordance with the procedure.

Braun’s side went one step further. He and his lawyers, sources say, offered a DNA sample that could have been compared to the urine sample to determine whether the urine came from Braun. It was a bold move by Braun attorneys David Cornwell and Christopher Lyons. But instead of agreeing to a DNA test that would have determined conclusively whether it was Braun’s urine that tested positive, MLB declined the offer. The refusal to agree to the DNA test likely pushed the arbitrator toward a ruling for Braun.

Of course, if you’re unconvinced by that logic, you could always move toward conspiracy theory, as Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs does. Craggs paraphrases an anonymous source who argues that arbitrator Shyam Das ruled in favor of Braun because he was afraid that ruling against him would cause the Players Union to fire him. Das has served in baseball’s labor disputes since 1999.

It is true that the Players Union has the ability to unilaterally fire him, but that would be a major expenditure of political capital on that part, and a dangerous precedent to set, considering that they would have to agree with Major League Baseball on the next arbitrator. Also, Das has been a full-time labor arbitrator for 35 years, and as you can see from his resume, he isn’t hurting for work. His reputation as a fair mediator is far, far more important to him than any single employer could possibly be.

Now, Braun didn’t get everything he wanted. He wanted his name cleared and reputation restored, but that didn’t happen from this process. That isn’t necessarily his fault — his legal team was obliged to use whatever method they believed would give him the best chance at exoneration — but his defense was not based on any argument about the high levels of testosterone in his urine, it was based on casting doubt on the testing procedure. He got off, but he didn’t get cleared. That’s undoubtedly part of why so many players in baseball refuse to believe that he’s innocent.*

And that’s why Tim Dahlberg, a columnist for the AP, could make a spurious jump in logic: “He declared himself innocent, despite scientific evidence to the contrary… I can’t say Braun is guilty of juicing because I don’t have the facts.” Many writers have made similar leaps over the past week. That’s confirmation bias, yes, but it’s also partially a result of Braun’s legal strategy.

* (Of course, if Braun were guilty, it’s possible that other players might have first-hand knowledge of that; then again, false rumors often spread just as easily as true ones.)

But ultimately, the significance of this case goes far beyond Braun, who is likely to be just another player among many in the past two decades to be forever tarnished with the cloud of steroids because, well, you can’t prove a negative. More players are beginning to assert publicly the no-win calculus of steroid use: if there is no effective testing system in place, then players are confronted with a choice between breaking the law and losing their job. That’s the reason often offered for why so many players took steroids a decade ago.

The difference is, minor league testing has been in place since 1999, so most of the players currently in the majors came through the minor leagues during a time when steroid use was banned and cheaters were punished. The paradigm in the majors has fundamentally shifted: whereas before someone who used steroids was acting understandably (even if not laudably) under the circumstances, now he’s not just a moral cheater, he’s breaking the accepted rules.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that while players have varying reactions to “cheating” — no one really cared when the Phillies stole signs in 2010, and the voters were happy to induct spitballer Gaylord Perry into the Hall of Fame — people seriously care about fairness. As Olney notes, ten years ago, if Braun had taken steroids, players might have had different reactions, but few would have criticized him to a reporter for doing so.

The world is changing.