Either possibility is unacceptable. Either makes a mockery of the entire concept of drug testing in professional sports.
How did MLB screw up?
First, we never should have known about Braun's positive test. That story was leaked to ESPN in December. You can't fault the reporters here. If a source tells you that the man just named National League MVP failed a drug test for having remarkably high testosterone levels, and if that information can be confirmed, that's a major story.
MLB needs to figure out how the story got out. Not so much to punish anyone as to tighten things up so fewer people know confidential information.
When I first wrote about former Phillies reliever J.C. Romero's positive test in January 2009, the story came from the player's side. Romero wanted to get ahead of the story before his appeal was heard (and denied, as it turned out) and he was suspended for cheating.
How must Romero and the other players suspended under MLB's program feel today? In Romero's case, baseball acknowledged that he used a supplement that wasn't labeled properly. It didn't matter if he wasn't aware he was using a banned substance. It was in his body and he was therefore guilty.
Braun reportedly won his appeal by challenging the chain of custody of his urine sample, not the actual test results. According to ESPN, the courier charged with getting the sample to a FedEx office on a Saturday instead stored it in his refrigerator for a day. That seems like an incredibly flimsy foundation for a reversal. So let's not celebrate Braun's exoneration quite yet.
"It is the first step in restoring my good name and reputation," Braun said in a prepared statement. "We were able to get through this because I am innocent."
Or really lucky. And what message does that send to every other player? That the testing program is run by incompetents? That your perfectly clean sample could wind up being hijacked and tainted, presumably by testosterone-wielding goons?
Or that it helps to be an MVP who happens to play for the Milwaukee Brewers? Which happens to be the team Bud Selig owned before being chosen as commissioner. Yes, the problem with glaring conflicts of interest is that, in a crisis, people suspect something fishy is going on. Arbitrators have ruled against every player until Selig's team's superstar comes along? Really?
That perception is as unfair to Braun as anyone. If the fix was in, then he benefited from cheating on the field and off.
Baseball's original sin on the steroid issue was a howling sin of omission. Fans were chanting "steroids, steroids" at Jose Canseco as far back as 1988, but it took another 15 years for the commissioner's office to make the matter a priority in collective bargaining with the players. In the interim, countless records were shattered and immeasurable damage was done to the integrity of the sport.
Baseball likes to pretend its Steroid Era ended once it began testing for PEDs. Anyone with an ounce of sense understands that the cheaters in all sports remain ahead of the testers. By the time MLB and the NFL finish dithering over testing for human growth hormone, the cheaters will have moved on to something new. They probably already have.
Credibility is the key to any testing program. When a high-profile athlete is busted - whether it's the winner of the Tour de France, an Olympic gold medalist, or an MVP - it creates public confidence that an honest effort is being made to clean up sports. When a high-profile athlete's name is prematurely smeared and then unconvincingly cleared, there are reasonable doubts about the entire system.
That is not good. That is bad for the game, for the player in question, for every clean player and for every player who has been suspended in the past. It is bad for the fans, who grow ever more cynical and disgusted with the whole subject.
The Braun case is a world-class botch. Now we'll see if the commissioner whose tenure has been marked by many such botches is capable of addressing it, or if he just sweeps it under his rug.
Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, email@example.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan.