It would be unheard of for a urine sample such as the one given by Ryan Braun to have degraded into abnormally high levels of testosterone or into synthetic testosterone during the 44 hours that it sat in a refrigerator waiting to be shipped to a testing lab, according to an international expert on drug testing of athletes.
That leaves only a few other possibilities, said Gary Wadler, a physician and former official with the World Anti-Doping Agency.
One is that someone deliberately smeared a testosterone gel onto Braun’s skin without his knowledge. Another is that someone tampered with Braun’s urine sample.
“The (other possibility) is that he really doped,” said Wadler, a professor of medicine at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine in New York.
Wadler noted that the testosterone level in Braun’s urine sample was exceedingly high.
In a normal sample the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone is roughly one-to-one. Anything more than 4-1 is considered abnormal and triggers a second test. Braun’s sample came in at 20-1 for the ratio between the two hormones. In addition, a separate test showed the presence of synthetic testosterone.
“Twenty-to-one is off the radar screen,” Wadler said. “There is no way that sitting around for 44 hours would have resulted in elevated testosterone (or synthetic testosterone).”
Testosterone is the male hormone that helps build muscle.
Wadler said Braun won his appeal on a “procedural technicality,” that his sample was kept for 44 hours in the refrigerator of the person who collected it before it was shipped to the testing lab, creating a chain of command question.
That raises the question of tampering.
Is it possible to tamper with the urine sample of a player during the major league baseball drug testing process?
That question was bandied about with great vigor after Braun suggested during a news conference last week that tampering was a possibility with his positive drug test that he had overturned with a successful appeal to a three-man arbitration panel.
The Office of Commissioner Bud Selig quickly responded to Braun’s allegation, with executive vice president Rob Manfred saying, “Neither Mr. Braun nor the Major League Baseball Players Association contended in the grievance that his sample had been tampered with or produced any evidence of tampering.”
The MLB drug program, which is jointly administered by the Commissioner’s Office and the players union, is designed to prevent the possibility of tampering, by the collector or anyone else involved in the program. The process begins with the collector witnessing the player urinating in a cup, then dividing it into two separate samples marked “A” and “B.”
Lids are placed on both cups with chain-of-custody tape used to seal both, which the player witnesses. The collector then must show the player that leakage is not possible with the samples.
Wadler noted that Braun has been adamant in denying that he has ever used performance-enhancing drugs.
But so too have other athletes who eventually were found to have cheated, he said.
“We are all too familiar with impassioned statements whether it was (Olympic Games track star) Marion Jones or (baseball player) Rafael Palmeiro,” Wadler noted.
In 2007, Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about taking banned substances and was subsequently stripped of her Olympic medals by the International Olympic Committee.
In 2005, Baltimore Orioles player Palmeiro waved his finger in front of a congressional committee and insisted that he never used steroids, only to test positive a few months later.
Wadler added that Braun’s case had similarities to that of cyclist Floyd Landis.
Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after testing positive for high levels of testosterone – an 11-1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone – and synthetic testosterone.
For years he denied the allegation and spent $2 million in legal fees fighting it before finally admitting to it.
“He looked square into the camera and said, ‘I did nothing wrong,’ ” Wadler said. “Of course, a period of time goes by and he says, ‘You got me.’ ”
The crux of Braun’s defense, and what eventually persuaded independent arbitrator Shyam Das to exonerate him, is what happened with his sample after it was collected at Miller Park on Oct. 1 after the Brewers’ playoff game against Arizona. The MLB drug policy states that “absent unusual circumstances,” the samples should be sent by FedEx that day to the testing lab in Montreal.
Collector Dino I. Laurenzi Jr. thought it was too late to do so and instead took the samples of Braun and two other players home until Monday afternoon, when they were shipped. Laurenzi testified at the hearing that he didn’t think the package would be shipped until Monday and would be more secure at his home than in an overnight box at FedEx.
Braun noted in his comments that Laurenzi’s son also was on hand as a chaperon. The MLB drug policy states that all collectors must be accompanied by a chaperon when collecting samples.
It was that lapse of 44 hours that led Braun to suggest tampering of some sort was possible, implying that resulted in his sample registering an extremely high level of testosterone. Braun called the process “fatally flawed” as it was applied to him, prompting statements from both MLB and the players union in support of the drug program and its integrity.
MLB’s stance on the delay in shipping was that Laurenzi acted in a “professional and appropriate manner . . . consistent with instructions issued by our jointly retained collection agency.”
Don Catlin, an expert on testing athletes for performance-enhancing drugs, said tampering with a sample “is exceedingly difficult. There would be evidence of that.”
Sabotage (someone exposing Braun to testosterone without his knowledge) or someone putting testosterone in Braun’s urine sample bottle beforehand are possibilities, said Catlin, the founder and former director of the UCLA Olympic Laboratory. Catlin also is a member of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission.
But, he added, “those are fairly preposterous. There are all kinds of checks and balances to prevent that.”
Still, a debate ensued among people who wanted to know if it was possible to tamper with the samples over that period. Braun’s defense team said the extraordinarily high level of testosterone suggested something untoward happened with the sample.
Drug testing experts, including those who run the lab in Montreal as well as the World Anti-Doping Agency, suggest tampering is all but impossible, given the process.
The FedEx package that arrived in Montreal still had three seals intact designed to be tamper-proof – one on the box, one on a plastic bag inside the box and one on the vials of urine. During the sealing process, the player must verify the ID numbers put on the samples match those on the chain-of-custody form. The collector then initials and dates the seals.
An MLB source said Montreal lab chief Christiane Ayotte testified in the hearing that the sample showed no signs of tampering that could taint it. The seals were intact and there was no evidence they had been removed and reapplied.
Braun’s camp reportedly requested a DNA test on the sample to prove it was the player’s but was told it wasn’t necessary, and that topic was not presented to the arbitration panel.
Had the subject of tampering been broached before the arbitration panel, federal authorities would have been contacted. But, because it wasn’t, the hearing proceeded.
With the testimony of Laurenzi and Ayotte as well as other experts in drug testing, MLB’s argument was that the sample was secure and not compromised despite the 44-hour wait in shipping. Das did not agree and ruled in favor of Braun.
Since that decision, both MLB and the players union have announced that language in the drug policy regarding shipping of samples will be tightened.
“As has happened several times before with other matters, this case has focused the parties’ attention on an aspect of our program that can be improved. After discussions with the commissioner’s office, we are confident that all collections going forward will follow the parties’ agreed-upon rules,” players union director Michael Weiner said in his statement.
Because of Braun’s comments in his news conference, what had been a chain-of-custody case morphed into a tampering case in the minds of many. Whether that proceeds with litigation or other forms of recourse remains to be seen.
Wadler, the former World Anti-Doping Agency doctor, also took issue with the makeup of the arbitration panel system used by Major League Baseball.
It includes people with conflicts of interest, including a representative of the players union and someone representing the league, he said.
Wadler said he prefers a system similar to the one used in tennis that includes an independent physician, lab expert and legal expert, none of whom have ties to interested organizations.
“That makes a helluva lot more sense than this tribunal system in baseball, which is the result of collective bargaining,” he said.