Drug testing procedure must be examined

All is well. That is what both management and the union say about baseball’s drug program. That, even after the Ryan Braun case, is what both sides want you to believe.

But all is not well.

Some players are upset and confused that Braun was not suspended after testing positive for a synthetic testosterone.

Seth Levinson, an agent whose clients include Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon and David Wright, said Friday that all previous drug tests are now in question.

“When the process is compromised, then the integrity of all results are corrupted,” Levinson said.

“If fairness and justice are the sole objectives of the drug program then every suspension must now be reviewed by an independent party to determine if the process and procedures were strictly adhered to without the slightest deviation.

“This matter has revealed that there are no safeguards against a deviant process or the disclosure of confidential information.”

A player who spoke on condition of anonymity echoed Levinson’s remarks, saying, “It brings a lot of questions to mind. It makes us all wonder if any tests were accurate.”

Some would argue that the outcome of one case should not taint every other. Every suspension in baseball already receives an independent, third-party review, according to major league sources. But the comments of Levinson and the anonymous player reflect the sudden loss of confidence by some in the joint drug program.

Both management and the union must work to restore that confidence by making the program more efficient — and perhaps even more comprehensive.

Whatever your opinion of the Braun decision, a flaw in the process gave his side an opening, and his attorneys and the union did their job, exploiting that opening to their advantage.

Yet Rob Manfred, baseball’s executive vice president of labor relations, said in a statement Friday, “Major League Baseball runs the highest quality drug testing program of any professional sports organization in the world.”

And Michael Weiner, the head of the players’ union, added, “Our joint drug program stands as strong, as accurate and as reliable as any in sport.”

Not so fast.

If the program was so accurate and reliable, an independent arbitrator, Shyam Das, would have found Braun guilty, triggering a 50-game suspension.

Manfred would not be promising swift changes to the procedures, changes that will address the faulty chain of custody that helped lead to Braun’s acquittal.

And Braun’s positive test would not have been leaked to ESPN, breaching the process’ confidentiality.

Both Manfred and Weiner said Friday the leak did not come from the commissioner’s office, and Weiner added that it did not come from the union or anyone associated with the drug-testing program.

That’s the initial source they’re talking about, and both sides know that person’s identity, sources say. But does anyone seriously think that ESPN’s investigative reporters, T.J. Quinn and Mark Fainaru-Wada, relied on only one source?

No, but on Friday we officially entered cover-your-rear territory, a public-relations battle fought on all sides.

Braun, in his news conference, raised the possibility that his sample was contaminated and said that “the system in the way it was applied to me in this case was fatally flawed.”

Manfred, in his statement, shot back, “Neither Mr. Braun nor the (union) contended in the grievance that his sample had been tampered with or produced any kind of tampering.”

Manfred also said, “Our program is not ‘fatally flawed.’”

Well, Braun and the union didn’t need to argue that his sample was contaminated; they needed only to cast doubt with their chain-of-custody concerns, and they did so effectively.

Also, Braun did not say that the program was fatally flawed — he said it was fatally flawed as it applied to him.

But really, all this is noise.

Far more disturbing is that some players — not to mention some fans — are exasperated that Braun avoided punishment.

As one established veteran explained to me Friday, he needs to “jump through every hoop” just to ensure that his protein shakes are clean. He said that he didn’t dare touch a new energy drink that an acquaintance at home suggested to him this offseason.

To this player, Braun tested positive, and that was that. The player just frowned when I responded that he would want the union to defend him just as vigorously if a drug test that he deemed unfair threatened to change his life forever.

The sentiments among players, just like the sentiments among fans, are not unanimous. Some players — and not just Braun’s Milwaukee teammates — are happy that the National League MVP won on appeal, happy that the process enabled him to fight for his name.

Any frustration should be directed at both union and management; both are responsible for the joint drug program. If enough players are upset that a deviation from procedure led to Braun’s acquittal, they can ask the union to adopt new rules, and require a player who tests positive to also prove that his test was inaccurate.

Drug programs in other sports function in that fashion. Management would adopt such a change in a heartbeat. The players must decide: Should concerns over a level playing field outweigh concerns over individual fairness?

Such debates are likely to take place in the weeks and months ahead, and they will be far more meaningful to the sport’s future than the rhetoric from both sides on Friday.

Manfred, in particular, was on the defensive. But the lesson of the Braun decision is that the sport should be on a constant offensive, recognizing that the drug program, like any set of laws, requires constant vigilance, a willingness on both sides to adapt to changing conditions.

The adjustments promised by Manfred will address the issues particular to the Braun case, but a deeper examination is necessary.

Should a player in Braun’s circumstance bear an even greater burden of proof? Should a two-time offender such as Manny Ramirez benefit from a reduced suspension or even be allowed to return?

Something good will come out of all this only if the uproar over the Braun decision leads baseball to a better place.