Commentary

System worked in Ryan Braun ruling

Questions remain, but baseball officials can't complain about the arbitration process

Originally Published: February 24, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Aaron Rodgers, the all-world quarterback for the Green Bay Packers and the reigning MVP of the National Football League, was the one of the first voices to be heard when Ryan Braun, the all-world outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers and the reigning MVP of the National League, won his appeal of a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy Thursday. "MLB and cable sports tried to sully the reputation of an innocent man," Rodgers wrote on Twitter. "Picked the wrong guy to mess with. Truth will set u free #exonerated."

With Prince Fielder gone to Detroit, Rodgers and Braun are the two biggest-name professional athletes in their state, and Rodgers might merely have been offering a little Wisconsin solidarity. Or maybe Rodgers was expressing relief for a victory over the steroid hunters from the U.S. and World Anti-Doping Agencies, a victory that athletes around the world rarely achieve. Maybe it was elation that players beat management in this case, or maybe Rodgers' emotions were a little bit of everything.

[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
Tomasso DeRosa/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesThe decision on Ryan Braun's suspension played out exactly the way the system designed it to happen.

What we know definitively right now is that Braun will not be suspended for 50 games and that the MLB commissioner's office has suffered its first setback of the reform era as a result of arbitrator Shyam Das casting the deciding vote in favor of the union's appeal. Since the Mitchell report in 2007, the sport has changed its attitude and approach to the performance-enhancing drug issue, starting with the commissioner's office transforming itself from complicit to vigilant and netting players for amphetamine use (Mike Cameron was once suspended 25 games, Neifi Perez for 80 games) as well as performance enhancers. Manny Ramirez, for example, has been busted not once but twice for PEDs.

Much will be said in the coming days and weeks about Braun, about whether he got away with one on a technicality. Travis Tygart, the head of USADA, called it a "gut-kick" for clean athletes everywhere. Baseball, not used to losing, is considering a federal lawsuit to overturn the Das decision. Both are positioning themselves as good guys who lost.

But the Braun decision played out exactly as it should have. His test does not appear to be a false positive. It doesn't appear to be an error in the omission of a substance that should be banned. There does not appear to be much ambiguity that Braun's appeal was upheld not because he didn't use a performance enhancer but because of a sloppy custody chain. Nevertheless, the system worked. Through the fraud of Sosa/McGwire in 1998, Barry Bonds' 73- (yes, 73!) home run season in 2001, the Jose Canseco revelations, the March 2005 congressional hearing, Rafael Palmeiro's ill-fated finger-wag, the Clemens hearing and mistrial, the rise of revenues and loss of belief, baseball has arrived at this point. Management said it would trust the system it negotiated, and the players' union, with Michael Weiner succeeding Donald Fehr as executive director, did the same: An independent third party arbitrates disputed drug tests and each side abides by the results.

Thursday's decision in Braun's favor came from that process, and it will be interesting now to see whether the public narrative following his successful appeal leans toward acceptance of a system that works or takes on an anti-player, pro-establishment tone -- that a cheater won, in other words. The issue isn't drugs nearly as much as the public's decision whether to align with City Hall. Had the situation been reversed, had Braun had lost his appeal, WADA and USADA, and certainly MLB, would have lauded the system, as drug-testing officials and supporters did in the triumphs over Ramirez and, most recently, the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador.

[+] EnlargeRob Manfred and Bud Selig
AP Photo/Bebeto MatthewsMLB vice president Rob Manfred, left, and commissioner Bud Selig apparently are considering a lawsuit to overturn the arbitration ruling.

Still, this is not exactly a clean result for anyone. Braun will return, but with a split decision. His MVP is intact and the record book will show no suspension, but his 2011 performance is still suspect and he has yet to explain to the public the 20-1 testosterone ratio that triggered the first positive test. Most likely he will not try, for he has his victory; but winning an appeal because his second test didn't reach the FedEx guy in time does not exactly represent a mandate.

Baseball might feel that Braun escaped the dragnet, but it, too, must accept a split decision. The bad news is that the league apparently believes its National League MVP is a drug cheat. The good news is that for posterity, he isn't. The Brewers -- a success-story team that has been in the playoffs twice since 2008 after having not making it to the postseason in the previous 26 years -- will have their best player on the field on Opening Day. The timing benefits the game, and the focus can remain on what takes place on the field rather than in a lab.

The people who wind up suffering the most are not Braun or baseball players or the fans, but professional football players, led by Rodgers, the Discount Double-Check man himself; unfortunately, he and his fellow pro football players don't have an independent process for appeals of rulings by Roger Goodell and the NFL on PEDs testing. Unlike Braun, who relied on the system and won, Rodgers and his teammates are at the mercy of their commissioner's office. There is no system in place for them, at least not yet -- and there needs to be.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.

MORE COMMENTARY

ALSO SEE