The thing that baffles me about the whole Ryan Braun fiasco is why he didn’t just shut up last year after he had his positive drug test overturned on something like a technicality. That seems the obvious play, no? The story seems to go like this: He tested positive for steroid use. The result should not have been made public, but it was, and one source told the New York Daily News that his results were “insanely high, the highest ever for anyone who has ever taken a test.” Braun fought the test results based on how they were collected, and it was ruled by the arbitration panel that, yes, there were valid questions about the process and the positive drug test was invalidated.
So Braun escaped. Rules are rules. He could have said nothing about it -- you know, something like, “I’m just glad it’s over and I’m ready to play baseball.” That seems the prudent call. He could have said something like, “I wish none of this had been made public, but in the end I’m glad the system worked,” and left it at that.
He did neither. Instead, he gloated. He scolded. What would compel a man who almost certainly used steroids, freed from his fate by some lawyering and a point of order, to do a touchdown dance, spike the ball in the end zone, lecture about the process, borrow a few sentiments from Nelson Mandela (“Today is for anyone who has been wrongly accused and everyone who stood up for what’s right”) and hint about possible legal action.
As author and Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi likes to say: “Where does someone get guts like that? Can you buy them somewhere?”
But more than disgust -- there are plenty of people out there expressing disgust -- the question is: Why?
And the answer, I think, gets to the heart of what fogs up this whole PED mess in the first place. The best athletes play to win. They do it in sports. They have pushed their bodies to the peak. They have honed their talents through countless hours of drudgery. They have performed under intense pressure. They play on the edge, where other human beings cannot or will not go.
So, yes, you might expect cheaters to lie about it afterward. One seems to fit into the other. But superior athletes, hugely successful business people, powerful leaders, they did not achieve those levels by simply playing it down the middle. They play to win. And so, the vehemence of their denials overpower the senses. They shout their denials from mountaintops. They viciously attack and discredit those who try to unveil. They play the victim -- they are not only innocent, understand, they have been terribly wronged. They act the way they expect a not-guilty person would act, and add on about 20 percent.
So Ryan Braun does not just take his bit of good fortune and enjoy his freedom, no, he stands up and says, “But at the end of the day, I recognized what was best for the game of baseball.” Lance Armstrong does not just hide behind his clean (and apparently dishonest) drug tests, he goes on a wild spree, attacking the integrity of anyone who challenges him. Alex Rodriguez does not just try to hide while the steroid storm passes overhead, he goes on “60 Minutes” to say that he not only never took steroids, he has never even tempted to do so.
And … where does it leave the people who don’t cheat, don’t use PEDs? Well, if they are lucky, they won’t hit too many home runs or strike out too many batters or play too well as they get older. Because if they do hit home runs, or strike out too many batters, or play too well in their later years, they are suspects. If they offer no comment, they are guilty. If they deny using, they are more guilty. If they vehemently deny, they are undeniably guilty. “Sentence first! Verdict afterward!” said the Queen of Hearts.
It’s kind of a rotten deal. And Ryan Braun makes it so.
I have long thought the steroid users of the 1990s and early 2000s have taken too much of the blame for the way the game turned. They played in a sport that openly dared them to use steroids. There was no testing, no league pressure against steroids, no peer pressure against it, vague rules that nobody seemed to know and from what anyone can tell, no questions asked. The potential rewards for using steroids were enormous and obvious -- added strength, more power, greater durability, huge contracts, deafening cheers, a chance to feel young. The potential consequences were all but nonexistent except for a heavy conscience, assuming it weighed on the conscience.
Meanwhile, the consequences for NOT using steroids were huge. It could mean diminished power, a benching, a demotion to the bullpen, a stint on the DL, a return to the minors. It could mean a release from the club. It could mean the end of the baseball dream. Baseball -- and I mean the entire machinery around the game -- tilted the game toward cheating, all but prescribed it. And then, when baseball was finally slapped into action, and the outrage emerged, the cheaters found that they and they alone would pay the price. At least the ones who were caught. That has never felt right.
But it’s different now. There’s testing now. There are investigations now. There’s extreme pressure against cheating now. There are heavy punishments -- not only in suspensions but in public shame. Every player knows the cost for cheating now.
That doesn’t mean it will stop, as Ryan Braun and numerous others prove. Players play to win. They always have. When spitting on the ball was the edge, they spit on the ball. When corking the bat was the edge, they corked bats. When taking amphetamines was the edge, they took amphetamines.
So some will break the rules, and if caught they will deny it, and if cornered they will deny even louder, and if they manage to beat the rap they will shout, “Today is for anyone who has been wrongly accused.” And, disconcertingly, they will shout it quite a bit louder than those who really have been wrongly accused.
The best souvenirs from Sochi don't need a bag. They are moments like Noelle Pikus-Pace's tearful triumph.