February 23, 2012

Was there really a violation of chain of custody protocol in Ryan Braun’s PED case?

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Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun had his 50-game performance-enhancing drug suspension overturned Thursday after independent arbitrator Shyam Das ruled that there were legitimate chain of custody issues with the urine sample that eventually tested positive for elevated levels of synthetic testosterone.

After a thorough review of the joint drug agreement between Major League Baseball and its Players Association — a document that is conveniently available in PDF form on MLB.com — I’m not so sure that Das came to the right conclusion.

Braun’s argument during his January appeal in New York City was that the courier who collected his urine made a number of against-protocol moves after leaving the testing area. But were mistakes really made?

  • The courier did not immediately head to a FedEx Office after collecting Braun’s sample following an early-October game because it was late on a Saturday night and he figured the store would be closed. Braun (or, rather, his lawyers) argued in January that the courier’s action was against policy, but the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement states that “specimens cannot be placed in a FedEx Drop Box” and the five FedEx Office locations closest to Miller Park are all closed before 9 p.m. on Saturdays. In fact, the location closest to Miller Park — just 3.28 miles away — isn’t open at all on Saturdays.
  • Also, none of the FedEx Office locations in the Milwaukee area ship items out on Sundays. So instead of giving the sealed cup of urine to a FedEx Office employee at some point Sunday and hoping for proper handling, the courier followed the terms of the MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement (see pages 37-39) by storing Braun’s urine sample in a secure refrigerator at his residence until Monday morning, when FedEx could finally get the shipment to the appropriate testing lab in Montreal.
  • The MLB-MLBPA joint drug agreement fully allows for temporary storage by couriers — people who are trained and paid to handle drug test samples, and do so as a profession — as long as the specimen can be “appropriately safeguarded,” kept in a “cool and secure location,” with “chain of custody intact.” A refrigerator in the private residence of a trained doping officer would seem to fit those guidelines.

So if the courier is allowed to temporarily store samples on his own, and he did so in his own residence, where exactly is the chain of custody issue? And why did Das rule to have the suspension overturned?

Furthermore, consider this series of tweets from Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports:

Passan also notes in his latest column that the courier testified in person at Braun’s January appeal hearing in Manhattan and assured those present that the urine sample was packaged into two tamper-resistant containers with security seals. Both seals were unbroken upon their arrival at the testing lab in Montreal.