Commentary

That flimsy PED truce was an illusion

The cases of Ryan Braun and Alberto Contador have reopened the old wounds

Originally Published: March 1, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

When Ryan Braun's suspension was overturned last week apparently due to procedural errors, Major League Baseball did not express disappointment as much as vent prosecutorial rage that a guilty one got away. Emboldened, some Oakland A's players made fun of the urine sample collectors at the A's spring training facility in Phoenix, sarcastically reminding the collectors not to dawdle in getting their samples to the nearest FedEx location -- and fast.

Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, referred to the Braun overturn as a "gut-kick" to clean athletes. David Howman, the chief of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said had baseball adopted the WADA code that calls for any appeal to also prove that any chain of custody breach was the cause of the positive test, Braun would be preparing to serve his 50-game suspension instead of shagging flies in smiling vindication.

A month earlier, when cyclist Alberto Contador's two-year suspension was upheld by WADA, a French television show satirized the Spanish tennis great Rafael Nadal with a skit of a Nadal puppet peeing into a gasoline tank to make his car go faster. When the puppet was stopped by police for speeding at 125 mph, the words "Spanish athletes -- they don't win by chance" flashed across the television screen. Nadal said he plans to sue the television station.

[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
Norm Hall/Getty ImagesThere are shadows of doubt over Ryan Braun's innocence, and no explanations for how the urine tested positive.

Today might be called the reform era for baseball. Its dozen-member FBI-like investigative unit, heavy suspensions and even amphetamine testing represent the best proof against past denials of a runaway performance enhancer culture. Or it may be nothing more than simple resignation to the reality that pharmacology is as big a part of sports as the scoreboard. Either way, little of the antipathy between the various sides of the drug fight has subsided.

Over the past month, wounds that were thought to be healed, or at least aged into scars, have been reopened, reminding us that the cat-and-mouse game of testers versus users is still very much alive. So is the adversarial relationship between the players and owners, even though there hasn't been a baseball work stoppage for nearly 20 years.

The Braun case has shattered the calm, reopening a public debate that had shifted mostly to Hall of Fame voting. Baseball writers have already shown their disdain for those definitely tainted, by leaving Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro off most ballots while voting in greater numbers for Jeff Bagwell. The clean versus dirty arguments will grow more contentious in 2013, when Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens become eligible for a thumbs up or down. In the past, when he was asked difficult questions about the future in light of the legacies of those players who put up giant numbers in the past two decades, commissioner Bud Selig would say, "We have a testing system in place. It is the toughest testing in professional sports. We stand by the program."

Yet, post-Braun, both ownership and the players are intimating that the negotiated drug testing program is broken, not merely flawed. Beneath the surface, the players' association has never quite forgotten that it was bullied -- by the public, by baseball, by George Mitchell, by the press and especially by Congress -- into agreeing to reopen the collective bargaining agreement to address testing. And this week's comments by Braun's sample collector, who says he followed the same procedure on numerous other occasions that he did in the Braun case, simultaneously makes the system look better because of its consistency and worse because those chain of custody procedures put the entire program under suspicion.

And while Selig's silence and the anger expressed by his office over the Braun acquittal may appear to be sour grapes, it does not mean that they are wrong. Like all of the athletes before him, from Contador to David Ortiz to Petr Korda to Floyd Landis, Braun has not adequately explained how the evidence of PEDs appeared in his urine. The good news for him is that he doesn't have to. He faced a suspension. He won his appeal because specific rules were not followed, and the matter is, for the business part of the program, closed.

[+] EnlargeAlberto Contador
Europa Press/Getty ImagesIn early February, Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador was dealt a two-year ban for a positive test for clenbuterol.

Yet despite their complaints, neither the players nor the owners want the red-button alternative, which is for Congress to get involved and attempt to wrest drug testing from collective bargaining, forcing independent testing of athletes. While difficult because of labor law, this doomsday scenario is not impossible, not when professional sports leagues receive billions of dollars in public money through stadium and infrastructure subsidies. Players and owners are earning big money and recently extended their labor peace, but the league's drug policy is a place of uneasy accommodation, rife with volatile fault lines.

Internationally, the Spanish have a similar dilemma. While both Nadal and the Spanish government want to sue the French, with whom they were already upset over Yannick Noah's inflammatory November commentary, Jose Ignacio Wert, the Spanish minister for education, culture and sport, acknowledged his country's sports programs have a credibility problem. The country launched its own Mitchell-style investigation, Operation Puerto, in 2006, which, Mitchell report-style, implicated more than 50 cyclists -- yet did not punish any of its athletes.

In any other universe, even though he has never been linked to performance enhancers and has never failed a drug test, Nadal and tennis would be at the center of the doping question. The game has become more powerful, more physical and more grueling, most recently evidenced by the epic five-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Big servers such as Canada's Milos Raonic, America's John Isner, Croatia's Ivo Karlovic and Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro routinely top 135 mph. Nadal, never a big server, won the 2010 U.S. Open over Djokovic because, for two weeks, he did something he'd never done before: He became a big server, adding roughly 20 mph on average to his serve -- the equivalent of a low-90s pitcher hitting 98 on the gun. Nadal hit 130 mph on the radar gun during that championship fortnight, and attributed the increase to a grip change to continental. But he'd never reached that velocity before, and hasn't done it consistently since.

Success also breeds suspicion, and the Spanish are the monsters on the ATP, boasting six of the top 30 players in the world and 12 of the top 100. Instead of whining about feeling persecuted, the Spanish should be doing anything and everything to show they're above reproach.

Of course, maybe the French should be watching their backs, too, with five of the top 31 players and 10 of the top 100 players on the tour.

[+] EnlargeTravis Tygart
Paul Gilham/Laureus/Getty ImagesUSADA's Travis Tygart called the Ryan Braun ruling a "gut-kick."

At the heart of such uneasy relationships is, naturally, money. Not far behind is reputation, and credibility. The Spaniards have a credibility problem, which leads to sensitivity. Baseball worked hard to not be the PED laughingstock, and now sloppiness has dealt it a serious setback.

And then there are WADA and USADA, the most vigilant anti-drug activists in sports. Both organizations rely on funding from the sports they are supposed to police. USADA would score a huge coup if ever allowed to be the official watchdog for some of the biggest moneymakers in the world -- American professional sports leagues.

But both organizations have a serious public relations problem, for their aggressiveness in stamping out PED cheats makes them untrustworthy in the eyes of the American pro leagues and athletes. Tygart did not express disappointment in the procedural errors in the Braun case -- which might be expected from an impartial organization -- as much as he attacked Braun, suggesting the ballplayer did in fact get away with one. While it would be na´ve to expect an enforcement agency to be warm toward the individuals it is testing, Tygart gave the impression that American pro sports are not really serious about enforcement.

The steroid era may be a thing of the past in terms of Congressional hearings, routine 50-home run seasons and systematic international doping with a shared doctor. But the fault lines between the combatants is as acrimonious as ever. The past month has been revealing, especially for the collateral damage to trust.

The biggest revelation, however, is the reminder that the PED question -- where it fits in the national and international conversation about sports and fairness and competition -- is still a vexing one for athletes and for fans and for governing bodies. Much is at stake -- money, reputation, credibility, the automatic presumption of guilt -- and all it takes is a questionable procedural issue or even a television parody to restore all of the explosive grievances back to the surface.

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.

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