The PED era might be over for Ryan Braun but it is still alive and well in baseball. To think otherwise would be nothing short of foolish. In the days following Braun’s suspension heaps of disappointment and vitriol have been thrown his way. Many believe that Braun disgraced the game and should apologize for what he did. One sports journalist, who shall remain nameless and unlinked, even went as far as to claim that Braun owes an apology to the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. Why the 2011 Cardinals, winners of the World Series, need an apology from Braun is beyond me, but it highlights just how crazy things have gotten in the aftermath.
Braun has earned part of this scorn for learning the Nixon era lesson that sometimes the cover up is worse than the crime. His statement of innocence following the successful appeal of his original suspension now rings hollow and makes people question his entire public persona. That Braun blatantly lied, instead of simply refusing to talk about the subject, has turned a mountain out of a molehill. If other players are suspended for their links to Biogenesis, don’t expect the same level of media ire to come crashing down upon them, A-Rod excluded. While I understand where all this anger at Braun is coming from, calling him a “liar” does nothing to address the root of the PED problem in baseball. It just helps fill column inches.
Now that the dust has settled from the emotional sandstorm, let’s all wipe our eyes clear and try to see what’s really important. We all know that Braun violated MLB policy and is paying the price for it. Both in his suspension and in the public shaming that has come with it. Braun’s acceptance of the suspension is the first step in him putting that part of his life behind him. But will the suspension of Braun and possibly other players with links Biogenesis be baseball’s first major step in moving the game past PEDs? Based on the current realities of MLB’s drug testing policy, it seems unlikely.
To understand why, let’s simplify things. Forget that Ryan Braun lied to the public. Though deplorable, the lying is a result of the problem not the root of it. Forget that Ryan Braun plays for the Brewers or, heck, that he plays baseball at all. At the core of the issue, Ryan Braun is a professional athlete who used PEDs to gain an advantage. So how does baseball, or any organization overseeing professional sports, deter an athlete from using PEDs?
Recently, the best, and most levelheaded, piece I read about PEDs in sports actually came from last week’s edition of The Economist. Written and published before Braun’s suspension, Doping in Sport: Athlete’s dilemma doesn’t refer to major league baseball and only mentions a few specific athletes in passing. The Economist, a publication with no skin in the sport journalism game, simply looked at the phenomenon of PED use in sports from an objective distance, tried to identify the problem, and find a possible solution. What they concluded is that the blame for the rampant use of PEDs in sports cannot be placed solely on the athletes. As they put it so perfect:
“It may thus be that the real guilty parties in sports doping are not those who actually take the drugs, but those who create a situation where only a fool would not.”
The Economist arrived at this conclusion by using game theory. Game theory can get complicated but, in this context, it’s quite simple. The article lays out their thinking very concisely and is worth a quick read. Below, I’ll distill their thinking through the lens of major league baseball and PEDs. All in three simple steps.
First is the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. The baseball equivalent would be the steroid era. There is no testing for PEDs. There are only players competing against other players. It’s better for everyone if no one takes PEDs. But, since a player can’t trust that their competition isn’t using PEDs, a player takes them to make sure he can win.
After steroid use became too prevalent for baseball to ignore, the game moved into the next logical phase, which game theory calls the “Inspection Game”. MLB set up a testing regiment and, starting in 2004, players who tested positive for banned substances faced fines and/or suspension. That program eventually became the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) in 2006. In game theory, random testing of players by a second, neutral, party (inspector) should keep the competing players honest. Obviously that hasn’t worked.
The problem is that there is a third element that people forgot to factor in – us, the fans. Without fans buying tickets to games, baseball hats, and beers at the concession stand, the game isn’t even possible. Fans are the lifeblood of professional baseball. But fans also forget that the team owners, who need fans engaged, hire who they want to be the commissioner of baseball.
The commissioner needs to play the role of “inspector” but also worries that if MLB does the job too well that the extent of PED use might drive fans away. So now the league finds itself in a catch-22. The league is paying to police the game but, if done correctly, it could drive customers away. So testing becomes secretive, scarce, and slow to adapt. MLB will catch players using PEDs every once in a while, like Braun or Melky Cabrera, but most players will still get to use without facing consequences. In game theory, a lax “inspector” doesn’t work. It only turns the game back into the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.
Remember, technically Braun’s suspension did not come from a positive test. If more suspensions come, they also will not be because of positive tests. Just a link to a clinic that provided banned substances. So if someone claims that baseball’s testing regiment is the best in sports, tell them it doesn’t matter because the system still doesn’t work. If we can’t recognize this problem, then we can’t begin to fix it.
So what should MLB do? According to The Economist article, and their game theory experts, the solution is absolute transparency in the testing process. To start, MLB should make it a matter of public record exactly when each player is tested and whether the test was negative or positive. Only then will fans begin to understand the thoroughness of MLB’s testing regiment.
In addition, the current JDA stipulates that positive test results and the ensuing appeals process should all occur behind the closed doors of the league. Obviously, that didn’t work in Braun’s original case. The intense public exposure over his test results and appeal forced him to respond. Braun might have poorly chosen his words but, if the process worked as well as they say it does, knowledge of his appeal would have never become public. There needs to be no more cherry picking of which players face intense media scrutiny while under appeal. All appeals should happen under the eyes of fans and the media.
People can speculate whether the leaks surrounding PED cases are coming from inside or outside the league offices, but it doesn’t make a difference. In an age driven by an intense desire for information, PED stories in baseball will find the light of day. So major league baseball should do the right thing and be the ones to turn on the lights.
Braun learned the hard way that honesty is the best policy. But baseball fans shouldn’t expect honesty from the players until first seeing it from the league.