Ryan Braun as Sports Media Case Study

Ryan Braun’s successful appeal, and the resultant overturning of his 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s PED policy, unleashed a torrent of articles, blog posts, television yelling and finger-shaking. So many opinions. So many words.

Now, a week later, the issue’s been dropped so people can write and scream about more pressing issues like Bobby Valentine banning beer in the Red Sox clubhouse. But the Braun kerfuffle is valuable as a perfect example of the sports media cycle today — particularly as it relates to the aggravating issue of baseball PEDs, but it goes beyond that. This is how it always happens.

An incident occurs.

In this case, Ryan Braun wins his appeal.

1) The mainstream media draws knives and begins thrashing about.

We’re talking about old school sportswriters here, guys who were trained in j-school to provoke reactions and get the conversation started. Some of them are zealots and truly believe the ridiculous opinions they espouse. Others just do it for the attention. But nothing gets these guys worked up like steroids. Why? Nobody knows. Because it somehow sullies their memories of their pappy singing them lullabies about Mickey Mantle, I guess.

Speaking for the boys’ club — for Woody Paige and Bill Plaschke and untold small-city newspaper columnists — is Mike Lupica.

Understand something: The overturning of Braun’s 50-game suspension doesn’t mean Braun is clean, no matter what he says or how many times he says it or what he expects reasonable people to believe.

He wasn’t exonerated. He was acquitted. There’s a difference.

If you want to think justice was served, have at it.

If you want to believe that Braun did nothing wrong, that he was just a victim of life’s circumstances, go right ahead.

DRUGS! DRUGS! HE DID DRUGS! To guys like Lupica, all players are guilty until proven innocent. They’re so scarred by the Bonds/McGwire/Sosa era that they’re enveloped in paranoia, constantly scanning for signs that current players might be juicing. They’re jilted lovers scared of getting betrayed again. They need comfort. They need their parents to tuck them in at night and ensure them there are no monsters under the bed. They need Bud Selig to gently muss their hair and promise that Manny Ramirez never really existed.

Taking the scenario beyond PEDs, this sect of writers always comes out screeching, reacting viscerally (or cynically) to the news of the day — writing now and thinking later. They like to judge, they like to condescend, and they like to behave as if they are the guardians of sporting morality. Most of all, they like to piss off bloggers.

2) Bloggers and Internet writers react with horror to the mainstream writers.

And the mocking begins. Young, smart, mostly Internet-based writers love attacking the mainstream guys even more than the mainstream guys love baiting bloggers and being provacateurs. Ever since the beloved, bygone Fire Joe Morgan set the template for how to make fun of stupid journalists, the Internet has been ablaze with the smoke and ashes of thousands of smart-asses burning antiquated, dead-tree sports journalism to the ground.

Braun-based example: Jason Brannon at SB Nation eviscerating some due named Jon Friedman. Go on over and check it yourself to get the full FJM effect, but here’s a taste:

Can we believe in the goodness of any sports star anymore?

Off to a terrible start.

… a shining symbol of a new post-steroids age that turns out to be as scandal-ridden as Rafael Palmiero [sic], Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemons [sic], Mark McGuire [sic], et al.

Three out of four misspelled names. You’re doing great.

…and so on.

3) TV and Radio personalities spray spittle over cameras and microphones.

Taking things a step further than mainstream writers, people like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith appear on radio and TV talk shows and scream at each other and viewers until they’re red in the face. I don’t want to dwell on this too much because it’s so vulgar, but go listen to Colin Cowherd bloviate about Braun for a sample.

It’s a guy getting off a crime because the cop didn’t read him his Miranda rights.

Additionally, on the MLB Network, Harold Reynolds and Eric Byrnes argued that it wasn’t necessarily Major League Baseball who leaked the news that Braun had tested positive. It could have been Braun himself, they shouted. Or a writer.

Huh.

4) Bloggers and Internet writers offer well-reasoned analyses.

…which are almost always the exact opposite of the crazed, snarling position taken by mainstream writers in step 1.

For the most part with the Braun debacle, this involved writers pointing out that chain-of-custody issues don’t represent a technicality, that MLB seems overzealous in its insistence that Braun is guilty, and that we have utterly no proof that Braun has ever touched a PED.

Representing the people, your honor, is Mat Kovach at Hardball Times:

When people talk about the “loophole,” they seem to be describing the chain of ownership of the sample. But the sample was never lost, misplaced, or visiting with Jimmy Hoffa for any period of time. The location of the sample is accounted for at all times.

The problem is that, for some reason, the sample was contaminated by the condition it was stored. This is not a legal loophole, but a serious and repeatable problem specific to this case. If you take Braun’s urine and repeat the steps, you get the same result.

Let it be said for the record that these guys and gals are almost always on the side of the angels, but that doesn’t make them any less predictable.

4) The contrarians speak.

While the “smart” writers online usually don’t form as much of a consensus as mainstream writers — because they’re a little less prone to groupthink, and more apt to actually form opinions for themselves — they do tend to agree on shit. But inevitably, there are a few writers who don’t agree with the consensus — which in this case is a pro-Braun, anti-MLB position (to use shorthand). The contrarians don’t necessarily take the same position as the mainstream press, but they don’t side with the bloggers either. They typically disagree with the blogosphere but for a different reason than Rick Reilly or Dan Patrick would. Check out Scott Barzilla over at The Fan Manifesto.

All that being said, the calls of vindication from the professional sports community is a little much. He may have been forced into arguing on a technicality but he still won on a technicality. Braun is not innocent of taking performance enhancing drugs. He is simply not guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs. Recognizing the difference is one of the big keys in understanding American justice. If one were to establish a Las Vegas betting line on the subject, those in favor of him taking PEDs would be getting better odds. So, Braun can claim he has cleared his name all he wants. Unfortunately, he will always have the stain on him. Furthermore, he is a victim of the fact that no one should have ever been able to see that stain. So Ryan Braun becomes a figure that we can pity and think a scumbag at the same time.

5) The new angle.

My personal favorite part of the cycle occurs when a handful of writers don’t contribute to the morass of articles either for or against a certain topic, and actually attempt to write something unique. Joe Sheehan specializes in this tactic in his newsletter. But for a Braun-specific example, we turn to J.P. Breen at Disciples of Uecker, who ruminates on what impact the positive test and appeal will have on Braun’s future.

If Jeff Bagwell cannot garner enough votes to be inducted into the Hall of Fame because it is the unverified opinion of some baseball writers that he took steroids, can you imagine the rhetoric regarding Ryan Braun?

And to think, this remains a story that should have never come to the forefront. Positive tests are not supposed to be announced until an appeal has been filed and overruled. If the appeal wins, the story is supposed to fade into the sunset, never to reach the eyeballs or ears of the public.

6) The “what it all means” piece.

Usually a day or two after the rush to publish, a handful of journos and bloggers will try to sum it all up for us. Try to take a step back and give us the panoramic view. Usually, these pieces are maudlin and overwrought. And simplistic. I often like David Schoenfield, ESPN’s Sweet Spot blogger, but this kind of writing bores me:

I want to believe that MLB’s drug testing program works, that it catches those using banned substances, that the sport is clean and the days of tainted home runs and MVP winners are long behind us. I want to believe that Braun’s positive test for synthetic testosterone resulted from hair-loss medication or a tainted milk or even a vitamin B-12 injection.

But I can’t believe that.

Instead, I believe this is a troubling day for baseball.

There you have it. The sports media cycle of opinion, debate and terror. Six steps to glory.

And this same template applies to non-sports media too. When a big political story breaks, like the Gabrielle Giffords shooting or the Anthony Weiner scandal, you’ll see the exact same types of writing, in the exact same order. It’s how things work now. There’s so much howling, and so little worth hearing.

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Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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