Friday, February 24, 2012
Braun's defense raises more questions
By T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada
The cloud over Ryan Braun's acquittal has only gotten thicker as his case has turned into a cold war between Major League Baseball and its reigning National League MVP.
His case has broken a number of precedents, starting with the reporting of his initial positive test by ESPN in December, then with his successful appeal Thursday, followed by MLB's surprising rebuke of respected arbitrator Shyam Das.
Braun addressed his case at length for the first time Friday when he spoke to reporters at the Brewers' training camp, but in his passionate denial that he ever intentionally or unintentionally doped, Braun raised a number of issues that only further complicate his situation.
This much is not in dispute: Braun gave a urine sample after the Brewers' Saturday, Oct. 1 playoff game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The sample collector did not take the sample directly to a FedEx/Kinko's location as proscribed by MLB's policy. He reportedly testified that he didn't believe the package would be shipped until Monday, two days later, and that the sample would be more secure at his home than at a FedEx facility. On that Monday, he shipped it to the Olympic anti-doping lab in Montreal, considered one of the best, if not the best, in the world.
When the sample was tested, it showed Braun had a greater than 20-to-1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone, two hormones that should appear in roughly equal amounts. Anything above 4-to-1 is considered a positive result. His sample was then put through a second test, an Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry test, which determines whether the testosterone in someone's urine was made by his body or an outside, or "exogenous," source. It determined that Braun had exogenous testosterone.
Major League Baseball was prepared to move ahead with a 50-game suspension for one of the most popular and successful players in the game. Braun was informed of the positive result, and his fight to clear himself began.
Almost everything else is in dispute.
Braun insists he is innocent and he never doped. Major League Baseball argues that he did dope, he just avoided a suspension because of a technicality that it says Das misapplied to the case. Braun suggested in his news conference that the unnamed sample collector somehow tainted the result, and his surrogates have told reporters that there were problems with the samples.
In the 24 hours since news broke that Braun had won his appeal, here are some of the critical questions and issues that have emerged, some of which have left anti-doping experts skeptical of Braun's defense:
|Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, center rear, speaks as his teammates gather to support him during a news conference at spring training in Phoenix, Friday.|
The first test
Standard procedure is to take a player's sample and measure a number of metabolites in the urine. The tester then compares the level of testosterone to epitestosterone. The average person produces the same amount, but if a person has four times the amount of testosterone -- a 4-to-1 t/e ratio -- then the sample is flagged for the more sophisticated IRMS test.
So what does it mean that Braun's level was 20-to-1? Only that the sample needed further testing.
Braun and his attorneys have said that his ratio was "three times higher" than had ever been recorded, noting that in itself was a sign that there was something wrong with the test.
It's possible that no one has ever tested that high in baseball, but Don Catlin, the former director for the Olympic lab at UCLA who is considered the father of performance-enhancing drug testing, said he has seen cases that exceeded 100-to-1. A 20-to-1 ratio, he and others said, is not unusual in a positive test.
A sample left unrefrigerated for two days could begin to break down, Catlin said, which could alter the ratio one way or the other. That's why, whether a player's sample shows a 4-to-1 or 100-to-1 ratio, it's more important to determine whether the testosterone in his system was his own.
The IRMS test determined that the testosterone in Braun's sample was synthetic. Catlin and other experts said they do not believe it is possible that a sample could somehow develop exogenous testosterone, unless it were tampered with.
Braun did not dispute the positive IRMS test in his defense in front of the arbitration panel, according to two sources with knowledge of the hearing.
|Dr. Donald Catlin, considered the father of performance-enhancing drug testing.|
The allegations of tampering
During his news conference Friday, Braun suggested that his sample must have been tampered with to have resulted in a positive test. He said that he had no idea why he would have tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone (and he was never asked during the news conference why he might have had synthetic testosterone in his system).
According to multiple sources with knowledge of the hearing, possible tampering of the specimen was not raised as a defense, and Montreal lab director Christiane Ayotte testified that she saw no signs of tampering when the lab received the specimens.
"Neither Mr. Braun nor the MLBPA contended in the grievance that his sample had been tampered with or produced any evidence of tampering," said MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred in a statement released Friday afternoon.
The collection process would have played out this way: Braun would have urinated into a sample cup, in full view of the doping control officer or DCO. The DCO would have then taken the cup and poured the sample into two other sample cups, one marked "A," and one marked "B."
A lid would have been placed on both cups, with forensic chain-of-custody tape used to seal both cups, while Braun watched. The cups would have been turned upside down to show no leakage. A source with knowledge of the case and doping issues told "Outside the Lines" that if someone tried to lift the tape or tear it off, it would be reflected on the bottle because the tape sticks.
"There's no way to replace it without that showing," said the source. "You can bet that if there was suggestion this guy intentionally sabotaged the sample, the case never would have gone forward. If that were the case, MLB's 13-man investigative unit and the FBI should have been called in."
Catlin also said that if the sample had been tampered with, it would have been evident when the sample itself was tested. "[Ayotte] would have caught that," he said.
Ayotte did not return messages left for her.
The collector and the rules
Perhaps the greatest and most unexpected mystery to emerge from the Braun saga is the role played by an unnamed Wisconsin man whose job last Oct. 1 was to collect a urine sample from Braun and two other Brewers in his role working for Comprehensive Drug Testing.
The actions or inactions of that man over the course of the following two days have emerged at the center of the case. Between Braun's defense team and Braun's news conference statements, it has been suggested the collector's son was with him at the time of the collection, and that the man worked part-time for CDT. (Experts said such collectors typically have other, full-time jobs.)
Braun said the man, inexplicably, took his samples back to his home that afternoon rather than take them to any number of FedEx/Kinko's stores still open to take delivery of the samples. During his news conference, Braun stated the man didn't drop off the samples until around 1 p.m. Monday, implying that a 44-hour window provided an opportunity for the samples to be tampered with.
Addendum A, Section V, Subsection 7 of the collective bargaining agreement states that "Absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the Laboratory on the same day they are collected." As well, language in the CBA states, "If the specimen is not immediately prepared for shipment, the Collector shall ensure that it is appropriately safeguarded during temporary storage." It also directs the collector to keep the "chain of custody intact" and to "store the samples in a cool and secure location."
According to sources with knowledge of Braun's case, the collector believed the FedEx/Kinko's pickup time for shipments had passed and the samples would sit at FedEx until Monday, the next business day. Because of that, he took the samples, already secured and sealed for shipping, and placed them in the basement of his home. MLB believed that decision fit with the language in the contract and should not have been grounds to toss the result.
"The extremely experienced collector in Mr. Braun's case acted in a professional and appropriate manner," Manfred said in a statement Friday. "He handled Mr. Braun's sample consistent with instructions issued by our jointly retained collection agency. The arbitrator found that those instructions were not consistent with certain language in our program, even though the instructions were identical to those used by many other drug programs -- including the other professional sports and the World Anti-Doping Agency."
About the same time Manfred's statement was released, union chief Michael Weiner issued his own statement, which read in part, "As has happened several times before with other matters, this case has focused the parties' attention on an aspect of our program that can be improved. After discussions with the commissioner's office, we are confident that all collections going forward will follow the parties' agreed-upon rules."
|Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, flanked by MLB vice president of labor relations Rob Manfred, left, and MLB Players Association executive director Michael Weiner.|
The offer to test his DNA
Braun's team suggested Friday that after learning of the positive test result, it requested the player's sample undergo DNA testing to determine whether it was truly his urine.
MLB declined this request, according to Braun's camp. While MLB agreed Braun's camp requested the DNA request initially, a source with knowledge of the case said MLB told Braun and his lawyers it didn't believe such a test was necessary but that they were welcome take up the issue with the arbitrator if they wanted the test conducted.
Ultimately, the source said, the DNA issue was not raised during the hearing by Braun's team.
What's next for MLB testing
MLB's contention that Braun beat it on a technicality may be accurate, but to the players' association, that isn't the point.
When the players agreed to testing, they agreed to a system that makes them sacrifice their civil liberties to prove their innocence, and to do so in a way that very few professions require.
They have to stand naked and urinate in front of a stranger on command, at any random time. The union's position is if players have to endure that testing and are subject to bans from 50 games to a lifetime, then there should be an ironclad system that protects their rights.
So maybe the wording in the program about how quickly the collector had to get the sample to FedEx was vague, but the procedures are there to safeguard against abuses, as they are in the criminal law system.
In his news conference, Braun described MLB's testing system as "flawed" and "broken."
Both MLB and the MLBPA issued statements late Friday afternoon saying they have one of the best systems in any sport, but that they have work to do.
Do not expect fundamental changes in the program, but do expect the two sides to address potential loopholes. Expect to see new language that specifies when and how a collector is required to ship the samples, with specific requirements about where and how he should store them in the event he is unable.
MLB isn't thrilled about having to address the issue at all; its argument is that while Braun questioned the integrity of his sample in public, he did not do so in his hearing. So if the sample was secure and its integrity wasn't compromised, then why should it matter whether it took the collector 10 minutes or 48 hours to ship the sample?
But Das didn't buy that argument, so the two sides will return to a bit of collective bargaining to tidy the language.
|Braun's case has broken a number of precedents.|
T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada are reporters in ESPN's investigative and enterprise unit. T.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Mark can be reached at email@example.com.