If you haven’t heard by now, Ryan Braun recently became the first MLB player to successfully appeal a suspension for Performance-Enhancing Drug (PED) use. Now Braun can take the field and try to put his tumultuous winter behind him and mend his once irreproachable career. Certainly, there are fans and members of the media who will not allow the 2011 NL MVP to pick up where he left off. While the arbitration panel’s 2-1 decision decisively rescinded Braun’s 50 game suspension, there are plenty of questions that remain. First and foremost, did Ryan Braun use steroids or not? After all the events of the off season many fans, myself included, are left with a nagging suspicion that Braun simply sidestepped a 50 game suspension by scampering through a narrow loophole. And while I suspect that Braun may have benefited from a misstep by the evidence collector, I can accept the arbitration panel’s decision even if that means exonerating a PED user.
Still Braun’s story raises some relevant questions. Does Braun’s escape serve the interests of justice, no matter how bad it makes Major League Baseball (MLB) look? Or is there something askew when someone who seems guilty gets off due to a procedural error?
Emily Bazelon of Slate Magazine writes, the Braun saga raises a “classic legal debate between strictly enforcing procedural rights and worrying more about the substance of guilt and innocence than process.” Admittedly, MLB does not operate within the framework of the American justice system, yet there are some fundamental concepts that overlap. The framers of our Constitution were passionate advocates of the value of procedural protections. Simply put, the framers believed it is better to let a few guilty people off on a technicality than to weaken the underlying procedural protection and permit oppression and tyranny. While these concepts may seem somewhat abstract and grandiose when taken into account within the scope of a steroid suspension, they are nevertheless pertinent.
Craig Calcaterra illustrates the importance of procedural safeguards in his February 23rd article on Hardball Talk: “Procedures such as chain of custody and the proper handling of samples — which were not followed in Braun’s case — exist for a reason. That reason is not, contrary to popular grunting, to make it harder for decent prosecutors or authorities to do their jobs. It’s to ensure the integrity of the system. And, in this case, the integrity of the sample.”
While Braun’s case may not shed much light on why his sample came back positive (Braun didn’t argue evidence of tampering, didn’t argue anything about science being wrong but argued protocol had not been followed), the case does reaffirm the need for procedural safeguards. So now we are left with the inevitable response: “Just because the MLB didn’t follow procedures doesn’t mean that Braun didn’t take anything!” That’s true. We don’t know if Braun took anything. Our criminal justice system doesn’t determine actual innocence, but instead determines the lack of guilt. The arbitration panel reach a similar conclusion — Braun is not innocent of taking performance enhancing drugs. He is simply not guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs.