Braun Case: Drug Testing Program Needs Overhaul
Major League Baseball has done it again.
The MLB drug testing program, which Commissioner Bud Selig insists is the best in professional sports, needs a major overhaul.
But we should not be surprised. This is the same commissioner and the same group of MLB officials who stuck their heads in the sand for years during what they almost nostalgically refer to as baseball’s “steroid era.”
Commissioner Selig says that era is ended. Well, not quite.
When Ryan Braun tested positive for a performance enhancing drug last October because of an extremely high amount of synthetic testosterone found in his urine, the Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder and National League Most Valuable Player for 2011 was suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season.
Braun immediately appealed the suspension. He was making a desperate and hopeless move. No player had won such an appeal in the 12 previous attempts to overturn a PED-induced suspension since the current drug enforcement program was instituted by MLB in 2003.
But last month MLB’s three-man drug enforcement appeal board shocked everyone when it voted, 2-1, to overturn Braun’s suspension.
MLB officials, including Selig, were livid.
Braun, one of baseball’s best and most popular young players, was overjoyed as he prepared for opening day, Friday, April 6, against the St. Louis Cardinals in Milwaukee. It will be the start of Braun’s sixth major league season. The chances are the 28-year-old star will receive a hero’s welcome that day from fans of the team once owned by Selig.
The appeal board decided by majority that Braun’s lawyers made a convincing argument that his urine sample may not have been properly handled between the time it was collected at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011, and when it arrived at the Montreal lab about 48 hours later on Monday, Oct. 3. Braun has strongly hinted that tampering took place but has not actually accused anyone of such an act.
Dino Laurenzi Jr., an athletic trainer with a master’s degree in sports medicine, collected the urine from Braun and was responsible for shipping it by FedEx to the Canadian lab. He denied during a press conference last Tuesday that anyone tampered with the sample.
An experienced collector of urine samples who claims he has drawn more than 600 such samples for testing over the years, the 51-year-old Laurenzi said that when he collected from Braun and two other players around 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1, the nearest FedEx station that was open at that time was 50 miles from Miller Park. So he kept the samples from the three baseball players in the basement of his home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., until Monday morning, when he could get to a nearby FedEx office.
The samples were taken from the three players immediately after the Brewers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, 4-1, in the first playoff game of the National League Division Series.
The basement storage for two overnights was apparently why Braun became the first MLB athlete to beat a positive drug test penalty. He actually won on a procedural question concerning the chain of custody of the urine samples and not on whether he actually did use PED.
However, the appeal board leader, Shyam Das, will not submit his final written report to all interested parties for about three more weeks.
Das, an attorney, former professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh and MLB independent arbitrator since 2000, is joined on the appeal panel by Michael Weiner, head of the MLB players’ union, and Rob Manfred, MLB’s vice president for labor relations.
Das and Weiner voted to reverse Braun’s suspension while Manfred, a member of the commissioner’s office, was the dissenting vote. Manfred, speaking for the commissioner’s office, stated that “we vehemently disagree” with the finding.
MLB needs an appeal panel consisting of completely neutral members — possibly a trio of retired federal or state judges familiar with sports drug issues. Nobody from the players’ union or from MLB headquarters should be on such a board if MLB wants to get honestly unbiased consideration of such appeals.
It is also clear that the collection protocol must be revised. No collector should be able to keep a test sample in his or her home before submitting it to a laboratory. That is absolute carelessness.
Laurenzi said he followed accepted protocol in everything he did with Braun’s test sample of urine.
“The protocol has been in place since 2005, when I started with CDT (Comprehensive Drug Testing Inc.), and there have been other occasions when I have had to store samples in my home for at least one day, all without incident,” Laurenzi said.
That admission may cause MLB players, who were suspended without pay because of positive PED results, to consider appeals in order to get salary money possibly taken from them because a urine collector stored the samples in his or her home for a day or two before sending it off to the lab. If Braun won such a point in his case, why shouldn’t others, who may not have known about “home storage” of the urine samples, also win?
Commissioner Selig may be angry as a hornet at Das, Weiner and Braun’s legal team. But he should face the fact that he has a very badly conducted drug enforcement program which, up to now, is not as advertised.
Selig’s office has conceded that it must tighten up the program and will, from now on, require that urine samples be taken only when collectors are certain they can immediately have the samples shipped to a laboratory.
That will not be easy, since the great majority of MLB games are played at night.
However, it seems strange that a 50-mile drive to the nearest FedEx shipping office was too much for a person to travel in order to perform his duty properly and prevent all of this turmoil. Some of us who constantly traveled on our jobs never thought twice about taking a 50-mile drive if it was necessary to finish a day’s work in a professional manner.
Braun, unfortunately, remains under the dark shadow of doubt about whether or not he did use PED even though he adamantly denies the use of any PED and tested negative every other time he underwent one of the unannounced, random samplings throughout his MLB career.
The reigning NL MVP made a good point when he said, “As players, we’re held to a standard of 100 percent perfection regarding the program, and everybody else associated with that program should be held to the same standard.”
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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