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Innocent Until Proven A-Rod: Baseball Fandom's Distinct Lack of Due Process

In the real world, people are innocent until they are proven guilty. In baseball, people are guilty right from the start, especially when steroids allegations are involved.

Nick Laham

Ryan Braun never had a chance. He was guilty in the eyes of the public from the moment his positive test for synthetic testosterone was leaked. Alex Rodriguez is guilty of everything the Miami New Times report says he is – guilty, that is, if you listen to what the public has already decided about the situation. Jeff Bagwell is guilty too, just because.

Happily, the real world does not work that way. Following sports and learning the law is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. In my brief year and a half of studying the subject, innocent until proven guilty by way of due process has been the cornerstone of any criminal law class. Meanwhile, one newspaper article comes out with vague sources and circumstantial evidence and even the lady who waited on me at the post office was talking about how A-Rod had blown it again. "How could he? Why didn't he learn from last time?" She isn't alone. The Court of Public Opinion has spoken, as they always do at the first sign of trouble, and the verdict is that A-Rod should pack his bags for South America now because there's no way he could ever be forgiven for doing this again.

In the real world of rules and laws, when a person is believed to have done something wrong, all the necessary steps are taken to get as close to positive as you can that they are truly the guilty party. Consider Braun: His suspension over a positive test for synthetic testosterone was overturned because a FedEx worker couldn't follow proper procedure. That mishandling creates reasonable doubt, and that's all a person needs. In the world of sports fandom, where public opinion rules, Braun took advantage of a technicality that allowed him to get away with being completely guilty. Is there a chance that Braun was doing something against the rules? Absolutely, but the FedEx guy ensured that the results couldn't be proven without doubt, and when things are required to be carried out a certain way to ensure the validity of the results, a sample sitting in some random guy's fridge for a few days should be enough to make people wonder.

Instead, people believe Braun cheated the system. But Braun didn't cheat the system just because his positive test couldn't be entirely trusted. A person who is found innocent of a crime in the real world isn't guilty just because they were charged in the first place. Due process is important because it can work both ways. It works to ensure the guilty are guilty and the innocent aren't convicted of something the prosecution cannot prove they did.

Poor Jeff Bagwell has to be lamenting the fact that his supposed wrongdoing isn't handled the same way in baseball as it is in a court of law. Maybe he'd have a chance to clear his name instead of being left out of the Hall of Fame because "he got bigger". Everyone should thank their lucky stars on a daily basis that it takes more than that for any punishment we might face in our lives to be administered; surely we would all fall victim to the tyranny of false accusation if that kind of circumstantial evidence was all that was needed to put one of us away for some minor offense.

The presence of smoke generally indicates fire. It's very possible that A-Rod, Braun, and Bagwell are all guilty of the things that the peanut gallery has hung them for. It is also very possible that they are not, and until it is known for a fact, judgment is premature -- and while evidence of PED usage can be elusive, in this case we have a relatively simple proposition before us: did Rodriguez actually buy from Biogenesis or did he not? That is something that is knowable with investigation. Had Braun’s test not been leaked, he would have his good name intact, and perhaps the testing protocol would have been improved for having been investigated. That is a positive outcome for the system, as would the exoneration of Rodriguez and the other players now implicated should their names in a notebook prove to be nothing more than that.

Given that we should all be fans of due process for the reasons outlined above, rather than taking the path of least resistance to an answer (one admittedly greased by Rodriguez’s previous admission of use) we should all be hoping that MLB is working to fairly figure out exactly who did what. As a law student, it's difficult for me to listen to stories of innocent-until-proven-guilty, due process, and reasonable doubt every day and to truly believe that that process works out more often than it doesn't, only to see that most people would rather not follow it when it doesn't apply to them. I can't imagine that anyone who condemned Braun would feel like they got off on a technicality if they failed a drug test at work, were in danger of being fired because of it, and found out that there was reason to call the results into question that would rule the positive test void.

Baseball doesn't work like criminal court, and for almost every reason, that makes sense. Baseball is a game that grown men play in pajamas and criminal court is for the real wrongdoers of the world. I can't help but think, though, that the Court of Public Opinion might do well to take a page from the criminal court system in this case. Let investigations play out, let people who haven't been fairly proved to have broken the rules go on with their lives as a presumably innocent person, and don't rush to throw the book at someone just because they might have done something wrong. Taking a step back to wait on more facts can never be a bad thing in this situation. The guilty will still be guilty when the dust settles.

Of course, everyone has the right to jump to whatever conclusion suits them at any time, as well as their personal feelings on each and every matter, but the future lawyer in me hopes very strongly that, if only for a minute, those people put themselves in the position of someone accused of wrongdoing before the investigation is complete. What if everyone had already decided you were guilty? What if there was nothing you could do to change their minds; and even if you managed to convince the right people you were innocent, they just figured that you'd somehow cheated the system to draw that conclusion? Hey, I'm sure you would never be in that situation; but assuming for a second that might not be the case, I'm pretty sure there is a serious Golden Rule violation going on here.

I don't know if A-Rod has been doing PEDs again, and neither do you. We can all guess and suspect, but we should be hesitant to immediately assume the role of judge and jury, especially this early in the game. Prior events, admissions, and connections to steroids won't make this particular case a slam-dunk in favor of the prosecution in People v. A. Rodriguez. He may be guilty for all you or I know, but if he isn't, only one side can say they didn't want to throw the book at someone before they knew the entire story. If you are the type who would rather rush to judgment than reserve opinion, be my guest. I won't try to stop you. However, I would ask that you kindly excuse yourself from jury selection if I ever happen to be charged with a crime.