It Doesn’t Matter Whether Ryan Braun is Guilty or Innocent | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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At the beginning of last year, shortly after news leaked of Ryan Braun’s pending suspension, and through his successful appeal, I wrote about his situation a lot, largely because I found it easy to write about. I’ve shied away from writing about the latest round of stories, partly because I feel like I should diversify my content some more, but also because I feel like most of what I want to say is what I wrote a year ago (in particular, I feel like this piece holds up pretty well). But I have been reflecting a lot on the situation, and I do have a few points I want to add, so I’ll use the recent reports that MLB is ramping up its investigation and specifically targeting Braun as an excuse to share some of my thinking.

This story is fascinating, and that has nothing to do with Ryan Braun’s guilt or innocence. The notion that Braun might have used performance enhancing drugs is relatively uninteresting, because athletes will always seek to find whatever edge they can to get ahead. The very nature of competition not only ensures this, it selects for those who are willing to go down any avenue in the pursuit of success. This doesn’t make his alleged behavior right, merely unremarkable. But the response of fans and the league is interesting. Here is an athlete about whom there is suggestive, but inconclusive, evidence that he used PEDs. A large swath of baseball fandom has declared him guilty, cannot be convinced otherwise, and feel the need to vocally share their declaration. One gets the sense that these people feel a need to loudly proclaim their cynical view, lest they be mistaken for a naïf. This is interesting. Even more interesting, Major League Baseball seems hellbent on punishing Braun through any means necessary, reportedly offering immunity to PED offenders in exchange for information, and even filing suit against Anthony Bosch and other solely in an attempt to acquire records that can lead to punishment for players. The League apparently feels they’d be better off keeping this story in the news and continuing to smear and tar one of the best players in the game, rather than trust their current system going forward. If they manage to suspend Braun, will this really reaffirm trust in the game? Will this keep baseball associated with positive thoughts in people’s heads? Is there some significant population boycotting the game for PED reasons who will be mollified by this suspension? Color me skeptical, but MLB seems to believe so, and that is where we’re at. That is the current state of the game, and it is fascinating.

It doesn’t matter whether Ryan Braun is guilty or innocent, because that’s not the real story. The system and the culture are.

Where did this system and culture come from? It seems to me there is one unanswered, and largely unasked, question about the Steroid Era that seems to sum up our response to the issue: Why is our reaction solely focused on eradicating performance enhancing drugs, and not on making them safer? Hear me out. Intrinsic to the logic of any PED ban is that these drugs are harmful to the user. It is not enough, by itself, to note that their use encourages other players to use them, because this fact alone is banal. The use of weight training by some players encourages other players to weight train, but we do not ban this, because weight training isn’t harmful. We ban PEDs because we don’t want players to feel pressured into harming themselves in order to reach and stay in the Major Leagues. This is perfectly reasonable, but would it not also be perfectly reasonable to note that as long as the possibility of chemical enhancement exists, some players will avail themselves of it, so we should want to find the safest ways for players to engage in this? It’s silly to say we won’t allow it because it wasn’t available in baseball’s past; there are scores of training methods that didn’t exist for most of baseball’s history. In Babe Ruth’s day, state of the art training meant wearing a rubber suit to sweat more. Some might object that there is no way to make chemical enhancement safe, or that to embrace it would mean opening a Pandora’s box, greenlighting substances that seem safe now but have horrible side effects decades down the road. This is a perfectly legitimate objection, but as far as I know, no one has raised it because we aren’t even having the discussion. No one is talking about trying to safely chemically enhance, because the steroid furor is not and has never been about player safety. It is about the notion of chemical enhancement itself.

Zack Greinke was in the news recently for discussing the anxiety disorder that nearly drove him away from baseball, and in particularly for saying that the medication that he takes to deal with it, “is the greatest thing ever.” It shouldn’t be, but it still is somewhat jarring to hear someone speak so openly and positively about an anti-depressant. There has long been a stigma associated with the use of drugs to treat mental illness; it is less than it used to be, but it’s still there. There is often the (completely untrue) assumption that sufferers of mental illness need to merely “get over it” on their own, and to rely on some sort of scientific assistance for help is somehow dishonorable. It’s obviously not a perfect analogy with PED use, but I think there is an expression of the same uneasiness with chemical enhancement. Our bodies are more like machines than we want to admit, and there is something threatening about the idea that the human machine can be improved like any other. This, I believe, is a large part of what we’re reacting to when we react to PED use. We’re scared by the intersection of science and life.

It doesn’t matter whether Ryan Braun is guilty or innocent, because that’s not the real story. We are.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. MakinDay says: March 23, 2013

    Excellent thoughts Alex. The story is why this is a story.
    I find the roll of media in this notable. Obviously I am biased as a Brewer fan. But it is an interesting to compare ESPN’s coverage of Michael Jordan (at his 50th birthday) who the company adores, to Ryan Braun, who (in my opinion) they despise. Or perhaps better said, they love to smear. How do you destroy the integrity of sport, the only truly non-scripted, non-contrived, spontaneous television entertainment left to us? By using substances to win or by gambling on the outcome of the game you are in? This is a rhetorical question already answered by baseball. And to those who love Michael Jordan, I am not implying that he gambled on basketball anymore then naïf’s imply that Ryan Braun juiced.
    And what of last season for Mr. Braun? Ty from Courtside analyst said it best: “Either PEDS don’t work or the Braun Scandal makes no sense.”
    It would be absolutely fascinating if Ryan Braun came out and said: “Yea, I used PEDS in college, but they didn’t work so I quit them, now I am a perennial MVP.”
    You are right that this is an interesting philosophical thought exercise. Currently we have a bright line on PEDS (mainly testosterone and its analogues). But is that line really distinct when we start comparing it to other scientific advances in the training of an athlete? Advances in nutrition, physical therapy, equipment, surgery, and training all greatly enhance the athletes’ prowess. Also the selection of banned substances is somewhat arbitrary: anxiolytics are banned in international chess and shooting competitions, but not in baseball? Why? We all appreciate that choking is part of the game, right?

  2. Hank George says: March 23, 2013

    Many people believe Braun was guilty in part because they know nothing whatsoever about drug toxicology.

    I do, especially performance-enhancing drugs and illicit drugs.

    It was my assessment early on that the test was a false-positive and the bungled, wholly-unacceptable handling of the sample is the likely culprit.

    More over, the physical measurements taken of Braun before and after the bogus “abuse” allegation demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that he gained no physical benefit whatsoever. This would not be the case if, indeed, he had indulged in the alleged manner.

    Man is innocent; get over it!

    It was proper for Braun to be “acquitted” and it is improper now for the league to execute this witch hunt against a man who should be seen as a role model for the sport.

    If I were Braun, I would have to consider litigation – first, because of the horrid leak which led to so much suffering in his part; and second if they offer immunity to low-hanging fruit (lesser names) to get dirt on Braun (people say a lot of things when they get a “get-out-of-jail-free” card).

    Major league baseball is seriously —-ed up and perhaps we can find a remedy in a change of leadership. This would not be the only reason to do so. We cannot let fools contaminate the national past time.

  3. D-Rock says: March 23, 2013

    There are several reasons why systemic use and abuse of drugs, any drugs, in professional sports are problematic. Here are my top two:

    1) Hormones and steroids are heavily linked to large physiological problems later in life. The cardiac, pulmonary, adrenal, and renal systems all begin to show stress after only a few rounds of steroids or hormones. True, a 25 year-old won’t show these effects, but take the same guy a few years later, and his body is likely to show all kinds of deterioration. “Bob had —– tits”

    2) There is a trickle-down effect to this drug problem. If MLB-wide abuse is defacto, then it becomes defacto in the minors, in colleges, and eventually in high school.

    I do agree with MakinDay that the choices seem pretty arbitrary.

    • Bob says: March 25, 2013

      To expand upon point #2 a bit.

      The federal government makes a big deal about catching and punishing athletes, because of the same trickle down effect. It is less about punishment of a few professionals, and more about determent for hundreds/thousands of amateurs.

      Also, making PEDs “safer” for professional athletes doesn’t mean it makes it safer for everyone else. There are children in high school using steroids. They aren’t getting PEDs from the same BALCO quality providers that professionals do. If PEDs are made legal for MLB, and therefore are administered by medical professionals, it does not help the quality or safety of what those high school kids are taking.

      This is why the government would never allow PEDs to be used for non-medical reasons. If Jose Canseco can take a controlled substance legally, because they enhance his baseball ability, why can’t 14-year old Joe Smith do the same so he can make varsity? Are we comfortable taking our children to the doctor, to chemically enhance their athletic ability? If there is an age limit, say 21, are we comfortable with NCAA being partially PED users and partially not? How do you tell a 20 year old that they lose their scholarship to a 21 year old PED user? And how do you ensure that NCAA trainers only give them to 21 year olds, and not younger players? How do you ensure that those younger players don’t find other sources for PEDs?

  4. Padraig Hansen says: March 24, 2013

    A lot of very thoughtful, well rationed thoughts here.

    First, let’s start with the comments about ESPN. @MakinDay alluded to ESPN’s coverage of Braun in his comments. There’s two sides to ESPN, the “news’ side, which is increasingly be drowned out by the “opinion” side. The problem with the Braun coverage is that the initial leaked story in 2011 was quickly overtaken by their multi-platform, multimedia opinion side. It’s gotten so bad, that even their “journalist”, T.J. Quinn, has been offering nearly as much opinion as he has actual journalistic reporting. This is extremely problematic first and foremost from the integrity of journalism perspective, but it also reveals the truth: TJ Quinn and ESPN NEED – ABSOLUTELY NEED – Braun to be found guilty of using PED’s. They know they bungled this, and have decided to double down – especially Quinn. As for TJ, well, let’s just say that it’s hard to employ a “investigative journalist” who gets it wrong on high profile matters.

    Now, as for Rob Manfred and MLB. Manfred was a very, very well-regarded L & E partner at an outstanding AmLaw 20 law firm (interesting to note, it’s also the former firm of Ted Cruz). By all accounts, he was an outstanding attorney, successful, and also very high-ego, which was further enhanced by his knee-jerk reaction to Shyam Das’s decision last year. The decision to sue Biogenesis & Bosch could be a good move – and the firms he used are absolutely high-end firms who do not just file frivolous suits. While I know the complaint was filed for no other reason than to facilitate discovery, it could very well work.

    What I continue to find interesting is that the only party who knew all the facts from both sides – Shyam Das – ruled in favor of Braun and for that, was subsequently fired by MLB, who clearly viewed the “independent arbitrator” as a MLB asset.

    If Braun did in fact violate the rules – despite what any of us think about the rules – suspend him in accordance of the rules. But it appears, from what we know, that both the media outlet that broke the story, and the governing body that lost the appeal, are both both working to right as much of their view of the “wrongs” as possible, as pathetic as that is. The more ESPN & MLB go after Braun, the more I believe Braun was, in fact, innocent.

    I’ll leave everyone with this – think about all the bad press, MLB going after Braun, Nelson Cruz, Gio Gonzalez, etc. – ask yourself this: By ESPN and MLB undertaking this Salem-eque witch hunt, who benefits?

  5. Scott says: March 24, 2013

    Your article brings up many good points. However, I question why you didn’t write this article several years ago when Alex Rodriguez was all over the news for PEDs. I wonder to myself if you had these same thoughts back in 1998 when the PED discussion really started to gain some steam within the media. I guess this article, to me, has the feel that it was written by a Milwaukee “homer” who is trying to shift the focus away from the fact that Ryan Braun most likely took PEDs and to a place that would vilify Braun less and place more blame on the general public’s complete unwillingness to even discuss the use of PEDs. I don’t hold it against any player for using PEDs, if I would make millions of dollars by supplementing my natural talent with PEDs I would do it in a heartbeat. But Braun most likely did use PEDs, which is breaking the rules, so if MLB wants to find conclusive evidence that proves this and punish Braun accordingly I have no problem with that.

    • Bob says: March 25, 2013

      An idependant 3rd party, employed by MLB, disagrees with your assessment that Braun most likely did use PEDs.

    • Nick says: March 25, 2013

      Well the website is called ‘Disciples of Uecker’, for one.

      Interesting article and I agree with most of it – but I’m not sure if making PEDs safer could happen. Imagine if the tobacco companies, and the millions they pour into R&D, could come up with a ‘safe’ cigarette !!

  6. Bob says: March 25, 2013

    If my memory is correct, I believe part of the reason for all the action around the drug testing program over the past 5 years is because congress threatened to take away MLB’s anti-trust exemtions. Following that threat, they held the “blue ribbon panel” (Mark McGuire, Rafael Palmero, etc.) as well as finally implementing PED testing. I wonder if that threat still lingers, especially in the commissioner’s office, and this aggressive tactic with BioGenesis is to ensure congress stays out of MLB business.


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