Yesterday afternoon, the internet exploded when news broke that Milwaukee Brewer Ryan Braun had successfully appealed his performance enhancing drug (PED)-related 50-game suspension, becoming the first baseball player ever to do so. The independent arbitrator on the three-person arbitration panel (the other two were representatives from MLB and the MLB Players’ Association), Shyam Das, cast the deciding vote, finding that there were chain of custody problems with Braun’s test. Specifically, the person who collected the test sample apparently took the evidence home and put it in the refrigerator instead of taking it directly to FedEx (because it was Saturday evening and he believed FedEx was closed) as the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA required. Conflicting reports emerged as to what the chain of custody issue actually was: while Braun did not allege evidence tampering in his appeal, he seemed to raise that possibility this afternoon in his press conference. Some say he got off on a technicality, but sports reporter Peter Gammons retweeted yesterday: “Quit calling Braun decision a technicality, media. It was decided on science.” Today, Braun said: “I will continue to take the high road. We won because the truth was on my side. I was a victim of a process that completely broke down and failed as it was applied to me in this case. Today’s about making sure this never happens to anyone else who plays this game.”
For readers who do not follow baseball, why is this SUCH a big deal? Well, Ryan Braun is the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, an all-star, and a very likeable guy. At 28, he is fairly young, and last year signed a large contract extension with the Milwaukee Brewers which assured that he would be the “Face of the Franchise” for years to come. Additionally, although the Brewers’ other star player, Prince Fielder, recently signed with the Detroit Tigers, the Brewers are a solid team with a chance to be competitve this year–a chance that severely diminishes if Braun misses nearly a third of the season.
Beyond that though, use of PEDs has been a huge stain on baseball in America, and the sport and its fans continue to deal with it as players from the steroid era become eligible for the Hall of Fame. Given the history of PEDs in the sport, news that a young rising star used PEDs is the ultimate betrayal. Seriously, I hadn’t felt this betrayed since the Eliot Spitzer scandal, and I’m not even a Brewers fan. PED use is still a problem, and, for me, I understand the draw to PEDs for older players like Manny Ramirez, who are in the twilight of their careers and whose production at the plate is no longer what it was in their prime. It must be an incredibly hard transition. Plus Ramirez admits he took PEDs. But Braun is young and maintains his innocence, so the news is huge. (It’s also huge because if there are chain of custody and evidence tampering issues, what does it mean for other players who’ve had positive tests and have served suspensions?)
We may never know whether he did take PEDs, whether storing the test sample overnight resulted in a false positive, or whether the test was somehow over-inclusive–like Elaine and her poppyseed bagels. But I’m going to tell myself it was one of the latter because I really like Ryan Braun. Just watch this delightful animated video and you will too.
There’s really no gender angle to the Braun story, but it got me thinking about use of PEDs among female athletes. PEDs for Olympians were state-mandated by East Germany, despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee started testing athletes in 1968, so you can bet East German women were juiced. The most famous female athlete to be caught with PEDs was Marion Jones, who was stripped of her 5 track and field medals when, in 2007, she admitted to using PEDs. I found a fascinating article in the Tampa Bay Times from 2008 about PED use in women as compared with men. Seriously, you should go read the whole thing.
It asserts that PED use by female athletes is much less pervasive, and says that when they are used, it’s more common in individual sports rather than team sports. The article posits two reasons why this is so.
First, the side effects of anabolic steroids are harder to mask in women than men, since anabolic steroids are essentially synthetic testosterone. The article quotes Dr. Anthony Butch, director of the Olympic Analytical Laboratory, who says:
“From the point of view of male vs. female, one of the big compounds that’s abused is anabolic steroids. And I think the reason males test positive more often is that females aren’t taking it as much because it’s more apparent. They start developing male features. First, that would be easier to detect by a coach or trainer, and second, they’re still female and they want to look female.”
The article does address the fact that men develop female features as well once they stop taking steroids because their bodies have started producing more estrogen, but points out that men can take anti-estrogen drugs for that. I’m not sure I really buy the “female athletes want to look feminine” argument, but I get that a deeper voice and facial hair might be a deterrent from taking steroids because it’s pretty conspicuous. On the other hand, the article remarks that women need a smaller quantity of the drug to achieve the same results, and so sometimes “defeminizing” effects never result.
Second, the article makes the, in my opinion correct, assumption that people take PEDs for money and fame, and posits that “cheating is more likely to occur…where big money is at stake.” The article doesn’t specifically say this, but I’m extrapolating that this explains why use in women’s team sports is lower. In 2011, 8,343 people attended an average Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) game, while 16,685 people attended an average National Basketball Association (NBA) game–exactly twice the number of attendees! Women’s Professional Soccer, the women’s equivalent of Major League Soccer, announced recently that it would not even have a 2012 season. Compare that with tennis, where the playing field is more level; indeed, in 2007 women tennis players competing at Wimbledon started receiving prize money equal to that of their male counterparts. There, or in the Olympics, fame and fortune are more tenable than in American women’s team sports, and so the pressure to perform at superhuman levels is much higher.
Of the two, I’d say the latter seems like the real reason, especially since not all PEDs have the side effects of anabolic steroids. I wish women’s team sports in this country were just as much of a draw as men’s sports, but it would inevitably lead to detrimental effects on the health and well-being of those female athletes. However, as my dad said in an e-mail to me this morning, “if it means anything, feminism means that women have the unfettered right to make the same bad choices as men.”