Ryan Braun Situation Illustrates How Arbitrators Can Lose Perspective

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Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, has been suspended without pay for the rest of the 2013 season for violating the league’s drug policy.  Braun, who will not contest the suspension, has admitted to wrongdoing and apologized for his actions in a statement, saying:

As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect… I realize now that I have made some mistakes. I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions.

However, when Braun was issued a fifty (50) game suspension in 2012, he was not so contrite.  After a drug test showed high levels of testosterone in his system, Braun denied doing anything improper: “If I had done this intentionally, or unintentionally,” Braun said,

I’d be the first one to stand up and say I did it. …I truly believe in my heart, and I would bet my life, that this substance never entered my body at any point.

Major league players can appeal any possible suspensions, and Braun took his challenge over the 2012 suspension before neutral arbitrator Shyam Das, who overturned the suspension on what some, including the chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said was a technicality.

As an independent arbitrator, Das serves at the pleasure of both the players’ union and MLB’s central office, and either party can terminate the relationship at any time. Both parties must agree on the hiring of a new arbitrator.  Das had served as an arbitrator for Major League Baseball since 1999.  The 2012 Braun suspension was not the first disciplinary arbitration that Das handled:

  • In 2000, Das reduced MLB’s suspension of Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker from 45 days to 14, and also cut his fine from $20,000 to $500 for controversial comments Rocker made to Sports Illustrated.
  • In 2005, Das ruled that Selig’s punishment of pitcher Kenny Rogers – who shoved two cameramen – was too harsh, trimming Rogers’ suspension from 20 games to 13. Das also ruled that Rogers’ $50,000 fine would be converted to a charitable contribution.

Braun tested positive for a urine sample he provided at about 4:30 p.m. on October 1, 2011,  a Saturday and the day the Brewers opened the NL playoffs. The collector, Dino Laurenzi Jr., an employee of Comprehensive Drug Testing (CDT) left Milwaukee’s Miller Park approximately 30 minutes later and followed procedures established by CDT.  While FedEx offices were open, there were none within 50 miles of MillerPark that would ship packages that day or Sunday. Laurenzi took the sealed package containing the sample home, placed it in a Rubbermaid container in his basement office and took it to a FedEx office on Monday. It was then sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency-certified lab outside Montreal.  At the arbitration, Braun’s side argued Laurenzi violated the language of baseball’s drug agreement, which states “absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the laboratory on the same day they are collected.”  After a two (2) day hearing, Das ruled that the failure to follow protocol with Braun’s sample violated baseball’s joint drug-testing policy and overturned Braun’s suspension.  Finally having enough of Das’s reluctance to uphold any player discipline, Major League Baseball fired Das three (3) months after the 2012 Braun decision.

Coincidentally, Das was the arbitrator of the grievance between the NFL and its players’ association regarding the New Orleans Saints bounty case. Das rejected the union’s claim that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not have the authority to hand out discipline for player conduct that occurred before the current collective bargaining agreement was finalized.  The suspensions issued by Goodell were subsequently vacated by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed by commissioner Roger Goodell to rule on those appeals

While Braun and Brewer fans were happy with Das’ decision in 2012, players on every other Major League Baseball team were not pleased.  It was felt that Braun had got away with cheating solely on a technicality, and that Braun’s cheating made the playing field uneven.

Rather than giving up in frustration, Major League Baseball continued its investigation into allegations that Braun used Performance Enhancing Drugs, this time catching Braun dead to rights.   Rather than “bet[ting his] life, that this substance never entered [his] body at any point,” Braun issued an apology:

This situation has taken a toll on me and my entire family, and it has been a distraction to my teammates and the Brewers organization. I am very grateful for the support I have received from players, ownership and the fans in Milwaukee and around the country. Finally, I wish to apologize to anyone I may have disappointed — all of the baseball fans especially those in Milwaukee, the great Brewers organization, and my teammates. I am glad to have this matter behind me once and for all, and I cannot wait to get back to the game I love.

This development is a vindication for CDT employee Dino Laurenzi Jr., the specimen collector whom Braun insinuated tampred with his sample.

Do not expect to hear anything from Das, the arbitrator that reversed Braun’s suspension for cheating in 2012.  The ruling undermined the integrity of baseball’s drug policy and made the playing field uneven.  Arbitrators rarely own up to their mistakes; hopefully, they will learn from them.  Major League Baseball will not have the public’s trust until the League and the union eliminate performance enhancing drugs from the game.


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