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How Would We Know if MLB Got PED Tests Wrong?

(Photo: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Last week, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that MLB is out to nail Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun as part of its Biogenesis Clinic investigation.  Apparently MLB is going so far as to offer other players immunity for information on A-Rod or Braun, “even if they admit guilt to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”  It’s not hard to imagine that Braun is enemy number one, since from MLB’s perspective he got off on a technicality after failing a PED test.  Since Braun is a former MVP and perennial all-star, getting the goods on him and a subsequent suspension would demonstrate that no one is above the law.

I assume everyone outside of Milwaukee believes Braun is a steroid cheat.  Since I’m not outside of Milwaukee, I’m in the position to be less judgmental.  Even if I’m just trying to rationalize away the unethical behavior of my hometown hero, the possibility that MLB’s drug testing is flawed is worth considering.

The 2009 best-seller Super Freakonomics had a chapter on the difficulty of analyzing massive amounts of data to spot trends, which included a tangent about cancer screening tests, which included a further tangent about testing athletes for human growth hormone.  It included this quote by 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell: “If [a drug test] is 99% accurate, there’s going to be seven false positives.  What if one of the false positives is Cal Ripken?  Doesn’t it put a black mark on his career?”

What if one of the false positives is Ryan Braun?  Once you acknowledge that there is some chance of false positives – even if it’s only about 1% – that means someone is going to get wrongfully accused.  If MLB is going to assume that they are right 100% of the time – and go as far as to give players immunity to turn them against each other – how are we going to ever know when they get it wrong?

Of course, we can’t assume Ryan Braun is a false positive, and most folks would probably say he doesn’t deserve the benefit of doubt.  I would argue we should at least acknowledge that false positives will happen, and those unlucky guys are going to have a hard time getting a sympathetic hearing.  The really unlucky ones might even be victims of MLB witch hunts.