By David Epstein
December 12, 2011

Ryan Braun's positive test for testosterone showed a level that was extremely elevated, and likely the highest that has been recorded in Major League Baseball, according to sources with knowledge of the NL MVP's test.

Braun, who has vigorously denied guilt -- "It's BS," he told USA Today on Saturday night -- is entitled to the arbitration process through which players have a right to dispute a positive test and of which Braun will avail himself. Shortly after news of the test came out on Saturday, Braun's spokesman said in a statement that "there are highly unusual circumstances surrounding this case which will support Ryan's complete innocence."

ESPN, which initially broke the news of the positive test, reported that analysis of Braun's sample was positive for exogenous testosterone. If that's the case, a valid defense would be that Braun had an appropriate medical prescription for testosterone that earned him a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) from Major League Baseball. But multiple sources tell SI that Braun did not have a TUE, and a TUE cannot be applied retroactively. If Braun had a TUE, his test would not have been considered a positive by MLB in the first place

A source with knowledge of Braun's test result said that his MLB test was positive for a banned substance, but not a steroid or drug. Braun may argue that he ingested dietary supplements tainted with testosterone or testosterone-boosting ingredients not listed on the label. The supplements would presumably have to be very tainted to produce what sources say was his extremely high T:E ratio.

According to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process was supposed to remain confidential, when Braun learned of his positive test in October he voluntarily took another test at an independent lab that showed normal testosterone levels. Neither Braun's spokesman nor his attorney immediately returned messages asking whether Braun's voluntary test was analyzed for banned substances that might still be detectable even once the T:E ratio had dropped.

It is unlikely that Braun will argue, as some have speculated, that he inadvertently ingested dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, in a dietary supplement. DHEA is converted in the body to testosterone, but is not banned by MLB. Since the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, DHEA has been legal to sell over the counter. (It can be found on plenty of labels at GNC or Vitamin Shoppe.) DHEA can elevate testosterone levels, but it has a specific metabolite that anti-doping laboratories look for, so the World Anti-Doping Association-accredited lab in Montreal, where Braun's test was analyzed after the initial high testosterone result, would have been able to tell if DHEA was the culprit.

Braun's voluntary test -- which showed normal testosterone levels -- came a few weeks after his positive test, and is expected to be part of his defense at arbitration. A source suggested that because Braun had passed previous tests and then passed his voluntary test, the fact that the one test produced such an extraordinarily high testosterone level may be used to suggest a problem with the testing or accidental one-time ingestion of a banned substance.

According to drug testing experts, though, passing a subsequent test is not, in and of itself, a valid defense and actually fits the pattern of some previous doping cases. US Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart has no specific knowledge of the Braun case, but says that a testosterone level that goes from normal, to high, to normal is typical of someone on a steroid cycle. "After a person stops using, the T:E ratio" -- that's the testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, which is 1:1 in most people, and above 4:1 in positive tests -- "goes back down to normal levels, and that could be in a matter of days or hours. It depends on how much they used, how long they've been using, and their own individual metabolism." Research done by German scientists showed that one particular drug boosted a patient's T:E ratio above 80:1 before it dropped back to normal only 12 hours later.

A number of articles and blogs have characterized Braun's positive test as yet another drug-related black eye for baseball and commissioner Bud Selig, who extolled the virtues of Braun as a bright light of the post-steroid scandal era.

But anti-doping experts who spoke with SI and are not involved in Braun's situation see the positive test and MLB's subsequent move to impose sanctions as a sign that drug testing is proceeding as it should. The darkest black eyes, they say, came when testing was feckless or not truly random and when big-name players were only exposed when they were dragged into Congress or court.

Dr. Gary Wadler, who until this year was chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Prohibited List and Methods Sub-Committee, testified at the famous 2005 Congressional hearings on drugs in baseball, and says, "There's no question baseball has come a long, long way from when I testified." He notes that testing at every game would be more effective, but said that a positive test from a star player suggests that "all comers" are being treated equally.

Added Tygart, "If athletes in a sport are cheating, it's not a bad thing for the integrity of the sport that they're caught.... It might be a double-edged sword publicly, but it's what clean athletes expect."

David Howman, director general of WADA, could not comment on Braun's case but said that "testing is now undertaken by the MLB to a far greater extent than previously."

At a recent gathering of the Partnership for Clean Competition at NFL headquarters, Howman applauded MLB on adopting blood testing for human growth hormone in its new collective bargaining agreement, and said, "I hope I can applaud the NFL soon."

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