A few months ago, I wrote a piece here discussing what I believe to be the truly interesting story behind Ryan Braun’s PED saga, and the Biogenesis case more generally. Namely, I feel that the key point is the fact that we, as baseball fans, are so severe and unyielding in our judgement of those who use PEDs, to an extent that goes beyond that of those who break any other rule, that we drive true discussion of the matter into the shadows, and make it impossible to truly learn more and move forward. I entitled the piece, “It Doesn’t Matter Whether Ryan Braun Is Guilty Or Innocent”, and indeed, now that he has all but admitted his guilt, my views on the matter have not changed. If anything, they have intensified.
Much of the vituperation that has been directed Braun’s way has focused less on his actual use of PEDs, and more on his vigorous, dishonest defense of himself. Braun was wrong to lie, but I believe those suggesting he should have essentially no commented his way through the aftermath of his appeal are being naïve. Had Braun’s public statements last February consisted solely of, “I’m just glad this is over, I’m ready to move on,” I suspect those currently excoriating him for defending himself too strongly would have been excoriating him then for not defending himself strongly enough. For all we say about just wanting players to be honest and admit to things, we haven’t structured the incentives at all to encourage this. To be a steroid cheat is to be considered an abominable wretch, and to be an honest steroid cheat is really only scarcely better. Once you’re the former, there just isn’t much percentage in trying to be the latter. I’m not saying this excuses Braun’s actions, or absolves him of his guilt; his actions are still ultimately his responsibility, and he did behave badly. However, trying to consider what he did without considering the context in which he did it is completely foolish.
This context of absolute vilification of PED users, which encourages them to hide as much of their actions as possible, only worsens the problem of PED use in sports. In my previous piece, I indicated that if we’re truly considered with player safety (and I think this is the only real concern justifying the ban of PEDs), the best thing to do would be to make PED use as open as possible, and encourage the discovery of safe ways to enhance performance. Braun’s current situation has also made me realize that we’ll also never truly grasp the effects of these drugs on performance unless we’re similarly open to discussion. Imagine if PED users could talk about their cheating as openly as former players can talk about spitballs and corked bats. Imagine if Ryan Braun could credibly claim to have used performance enhancers during the 2011 season, but not during the 2012 season. Wouldn’t that speak volumes about their effectiveness? I don’t know if they’re as ineffective as that suggests, but I also feel quite certain that they’re less effective than the magic beans they are in popular imagination. Until we can get more honesty from players about when they did and did not use, however, we can never know for sure. So when Ryan Braun comes out and says that he only used performance enhancers during the 2011 season, and not any other, and I suspect he will say such a thing, what could be evidence of their effectiveness will serve equally well as further evidence of his duplicity. What might have discouraged another from the use of such substances will have no such effect.
I will be criticized for defending Braun too much in this piece. This is not because I am not disappointed by his actions; I am, and while I think our current attitude towards PEDs is misguided, they are against the rules, he broke these rules, and he should be punished. As a Brewers fan, I am also upset that he undertook these actions knowing he represents the franchise, and that his behavior reflects poorly on the entire organization. But I’m not going to dwell on criticizing his failings, mainly because if you want to read that, there’s plenty of it all over the Internet. I strike a mostly defensive tone as a corrective to the predominant tone struck elsewhere.
Of course, the note inherent in criticism of defending Braun is that I am a biased Brewers fan, unable to look past my team allegiances to see the horrid nature of this man’s character. On this charge, I plead no contest. Watching Ryan Braun play baseball has brought me an immense amount of joy over the past six years, and I cannot deny that this colors my observations. But what can be cast one way as bias might be cast another way as a perspective. From my perspective, Ryan Braun’s baseball skill has brought me an enjoyment that has not been sullied or trashed by these revelations. His actions have disappointed me, but they have not disappointed me more than Yovani Gallardo’s actions, and they don’t disturb me a fraction as much as Francisco Rodriguez’s actions. From my perspective, the opprobrium heaped on his actions relative to those of other athletes is disproportionate and unhelpful, and so that is what I feel compelled to note.