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February 23, 2012 at 4:09 PM

Overturned test in Ryan Braun case is proof the system works, much as MLB doesn’t like it

Ryan Braun has done a lot of things with his bat. But the Milwaukee Brewers slugger likely just one-upped even those accomplishments by becoming the first player to have an MLB drug test result overturned.
Many will focus on the fact that Braun is reported to have beaten the ruling on a bit of a technicality. But that’s the wrong focus. The fact that the test sample is reported to have sat in a collector’s refrigerator overnight because they supposedly could not find any open FedEx outlets on a Saturday violates chain of custody protocol set out by Major League Baseball itself.
That provision says a test sample has to be sent off to a laboratory in Montreal on the same day it gets collected. There’s a reason these tests are not supposed to sit around for two days.
Too many things can happen to a sample that just sits around without anybody truly safeguarding it. With the provision, you pretty much have to take the sample to a delivery outlet and get it off right away — which minimizes the ability to tamper with it.
When it’s sitting in some person’s fridge, who knows who may have gotten a crack at it? Somebody’s kids? Or, more importantly, somebody who may have wished to do Braun harm by compromising the results.
We have no clue whether anybody would do this or did do this. But that’s the problem. We don’t know and can’t know because MLB’s own guidelines were not followed.
Sure, we’re now starting to see interviews with people who say that this type of delay happens all the time and how collectors are specially trained in storing and safeguarding samples. That’s great, but then why have the same-day protocols in the first place? Sure, most samples are probably kept safe by hardworking men and women dealing with delays. But the rules are in-place for a reason and in this case, somebody challenged the fact that they weren’t followed.
As is their right. And this time, Braun won. Maybe next time, in another case or another sport, somebody will lose. It’s all about the MLB system in-place, its rules and the appeals process that is allowed those who feel protocols were not adhered to. It was there for Braun to use, he used it and it worked to his advantage when the rules were not followed. End of story. Well, at least in this case.
Photo Credit: AP

Sure, I can understand why MLB officials disagree with the ruling, which doesn’t look at the merits of the actual test results itself.
But if the process that led to those results is compromised, then it kind of falls apart like a house of cards.
Because it is plausible that someone who didn’t like Braun very much and with a lot of money to throw around could have been given access to said fridge, done a little chemical work and repackaged everything all nice and expert and neat-like. Maybe they are good at getting through tamper-proof seals, I really don’t know.
Do I believe that’s what really happened?
I tend not to, but who am I to say it couldn’t happen? When you leave something unprotected for too long, plenty of things can happen. There was a huge controversy in the late 1990s about scientific evidence being manipulated and mishandled at the FBI Crime Lab, resulting in scores of people being sent improperly to prison based on bogus, unscrutinized science.
As quick as we are as a society to accept scientific results as the be-all, end-all, the process in which human beings go about attaining them has to be monitored with the strictest of standards. Because we’ve seen that even the best science can achieve inaccurate, or even biased results if process is ignored.
That’s why they have strict chain of custody rules for drug sample collecting. I didn’t make those rules, MLB did. And because MLB did not follow its own rules, this result had to be overturned.
Sometimes, well-intentioned people just mess up and get saddled with consequences they truly don’t like. At the very least, that’s what happened here.
When results about Braun testing positive first leaked, I wrote that the Baseball Writers Association of America should consider a re-vote on the NL Most Valuable Player Award it gave to Braun if his positive test was upheld. Since that did not happen, it’s a moot point and of course he should now keep the award.
And MLB should now lick its wounds and take steps to ensure that its protocols are followed to the strictest. The fact that somebody keeps leaking results to the media is a pretty good indication of some weakness in the need-to-know structure.
At the very least, MLB has to get its own collection and delivery protocols right.
The MLB testing system isn’t broken. Far from it. The system worked the way it’s supposed to and a result was overturned when somebody didn’t go about things the right way. Next time, hopefully, they get it right and don’t have to suffer through the embarrassment of having not followed their own rules.



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