Fresh off his National League MVP campaign in which he led the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs, outfielder Ryan Braun tested positive for synthetic testosterone, which is a banned substance according to the Major League Baseball Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program (also known as the MLB Drug Agreement). The report of his positive test was leaked in December by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn just weeks after he was voted the National League MVP and Braun was subject to a 50-game suspension for violating the MLB Drug Agreement.
After appealing the ruling to a three-member arbitration panel in January, yesterday afternoon Braun’s appeal was upheld and his 50-game suspension was overturned by decision rendered by independent arbitrator Shyam Das.
This was the first time a baseball player has ever successfully challenged a drug-related penalty in a grievance. He won his appeal not by arguing any evidence of tampering or the science of the test results, but because of a problem with the chain-of-custody and the collection procedure.
That’s correct – Braun had his suspension lifted because a standard agreed-upon process was not properly followed.
The MLB Drug Agreement follows a very specific and strict procedure for random testing, specimen collection, and secure shipment of specimens via FedEx to the World Anti-Doping Agency-certified Laboratoire de Controle du Dopage in Montreal, one of the most respected drug laboratories in the world. However, a breakdown in the chain of custody and a questionable delay in delivering the specimens to FedEx – the collector held onto the shipment in his Wisconsin home over the weekend for two days instead of immediately taking it to FedEx – created a loophole in the procedure for Braun’s attorney David Cornwell to exploit.
The MLB Drug Agreement states in Addendum A, Section V, Subsection 7 that “Absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the Laboratory on the same day they are collected.”
In accordance with the drug testing policy in which randomly-selected players are tested right as they arrive at the park with no advance notice given, Braun was tested on Saturday, October 1st before the Brewers opened the NL playoffs at Miller Park in Milwaukee against the Arizona Diamondbacks. With the first pitch at 1:07 CT, Braun and any other randomly-selected players would likely have provided specimens to Comprehensive Drug Testing, Inc. (CDT) well before noon.
The specimen collector for CDT claims that he didn’t think he’d be able to get the specimens to FedEx in time on a Saturday for secure shipment, so he elected to store the specimens in a refrigerator in his basement at home until he could bring the specimens back to FedEx on Monday, October 3rd for shipment. MLB Drug Agreement Addendum A, Section XI, Subsection F states “the Collector shall take the specimens in the appropriate packaging to a FedEx Customer Service Center for shipment. The specimens cannot be placed in a FedEx Drop Box location.”
However, according to the FedEx website, the FedEx Office Print & Ship Center at 1703 North Farwell Avenue in Milwaukee is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and the latest FedEx Express drop-off time for Saturday shipment is 4:00 p.m. CT. This location is less than 3 miles away from Miller Park.
This means that even if Ryan Braun had submitted a specimen to CDT just before the game’s first pitch, the collector still would have had nearly three hours to document and seal the shipment and travel that short distance to make the delivery to FedEx. Short of unusual circumstances, it is extremely reasonable to expect the Braun specimen to have been shipped via FedEx at this location before the last drop-off on Saturday, October 1st at 4:00 p.m. CT.
MLB Drug Agreement Addendum A, Section E, Subsections 1-2 states “If the specimen is not immediately prepared for shipment, the Collector shall ensure that it is appropriately safeguarded during temporary storage. The Collector must keep the chain of custody intact. The Collector must store the samples in a cool and secure location.” While the CDT collector did follow the procedure of storing the samples in a cool and secure location, it is unknown if the samples placed in the temporary storage of a basement refrigerator maintained appropriate safeguards and kept the chain of custody intact. That being said, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) feels that the collector took proper action for this scenario.
In the end, a written and agreed-upon procedure was not followed, and with Ryan Braun now made available for those first 50 games the 2012 Major League Baseball season will be impacted by the result. Does the ruling vindicate Braun’s innocence and prove he didn’t use a banned substance? Absolutely not, but the introduction of reasonable doubt through an improperly-followed procedure could rewrite baseball history.
What can we say about the application of continuous improvement? Where is there ambiguity in the process? Why does WADA think the delay was acceptable while the arbitration panel felt otherwise? Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports says that this chain-of-custody loophole will be closed in an amendment to league’s drug-testing program, and MLB Drug Agreement Section 1-F says “Within 30 days of the conclusion of the World Series, the Parties will meet with the Independent Program Administrator, the Medical Testing Officer (at the Montreal lab), and a representative from CDT regarding potential changes to the Program based on developments during the most recent year.”
Edit: It’s important to note that Braun’s specimen that didn’t pass was collected on October 1st, but he was notified of the failed test on October 19, after which he elected to provide another specimen to an independent lab to prove his innocence. This specimen passed, further introducing reasonable doubt to the validity of the original sample.