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Crisis Management

Ryan Braun, "Blackfish," and the money-driven myth

Last week Milwaukee Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun was suspended for 65 games by Major League Baseball for violating its basic agreement and joint drug prevention and treatment program. He did not appeal the suspension, inferring that he knew the severity of evidence held against him, and the potential of lingering criticism that would follow him to every city the rest of the season. Finally, baseball got the man that had cheated them, on the field and in court.

Braun’s consent to accept this suspension meant he had consented to more than just leaving the season unfinished though. It meant that he accepted his failed drug test at the end of his 2011 MVP season, that his arbitration victory claiming tampering was invalid, and that his proclamation of innocence was just a cold-faced, Rafael Palmeiro finger-wave lie. But even in his submission his faults rang hollow, undoubtedly because, though he will forgo a few million dollars this year, he can still look forward to over $100 million through 2020.

And that is precisely the all-encompassing issue. Until teams are allowed to void contracts of their thick-pocketed stars for situations like this, there really is no incentive for players to change, unless of course they have a moral core. Meanwhile, the Yankees are trying to squirm in uncharted medical territory with their Alex Rodriguez dilemma, waiting for a verdict and biding their time with Grade 1 quad strain diagnoses. A-Rod and Braun are in a similar boat in regards to Biogenesis, but more specifically in their willingness to blame and deny.

Let’s just consider the fact that Ryan Braun publicly denounced a drug tester doing protocol for his job. The tester explained that once the test was completed, the FedEx drop-off center where he sent out the samples was closed. Knowing the sample must be held in a cool and secure place, the tester brought it back home, and kept it chilled in his refrigerator until Monday. Braun wanted people to believe that his positive test was not a product of PED use, but instead the blatant mishandling of his sample. “The collector's attempt to re-litigate his conduct is inappropriate, and his efforts will only be persuasive to those who do not understand the evidence or the rules,” said Braun’s attorney later. MLB quickly defended the urine collector, calling him “extremely experienced.” 


                                                                                                                                                                           (flickr | slapcaption)


I bring this up in light of a harrowing, deeply moving new documentary “Blackfish,” directed by Gabirela Cowperthwaite, that has recently caused controversy and renewed dialogue over animal captivity. The film is a mostly one-sided exploration into Orca whales and the effects that their captivity in SeaWorld can have on them and human beings. More specifically, it is about the whale named Tilikum and his fatal attack resulting in the death of SeaWorld head trainer Dawn Brancheau. To understand her death, the film dives into the history of Tilikum and Orca whales, plucked from the ocean and trapped in show tanks. Tilikum had drowned a trainer in 1991 at Sealand in Victoria, British Columbia, had killed another man who had trespassed onto SeaWorld property in 1999, and in 2010 ended Brancheau’s life during a private show.

SeaWorld however was eager to take the corporate stance. The film makes claims that Tilikum, in captivity since 1983, is the victim of psychosis, swimming millions of tedious laps in a concrete pool that have disabled his natural tendencies and have to certain degrees driven him insane. Dawn’s autopsy lists about every major organ or bone bruised, broken, and destroyed. SeaWorld however says that Tilikum did not attack Dawn, and instead had become transfixed with her ponytail and did not let go as he dragged her down below. They claim it wasn’t Dawn’s fault, but then whose was it? None of the trainers knew the specificities of Tilikum’s dangerous past. Whose fault was that?

Their prize 6-ton bull whale attacking a trainer didn’t fall in line with their corporate needs just like a positive drug test didn’t fall in line for a recently crowned MVP. When there is an easy escape route, “good” PR fashion is to take it. But maybe what’s worse is the aftermath, the part no company or client in that moment really ever cares to look at. The testimonies from former SeaWorld trainers are sad. Knowing the cruelties of penning up these magnificent creatures, they recall their shows, putting on false smiles and reciting SeaWorld’s corporate rhetoric. Every one of them at one point mentions the word “naiveté.” They spurted out scripts like automatons and trainers were told to cut video clips of any attacks or near-deaths during shows. The killer whales weren’t being forced to do tricks, “they want to do them,” trainers would mindlessly recite to fans.


Anyone who was a fan of Ryan Braun knows those trainers’ hindsight pain. Everyone who bought a jersey, got an autograph, pretended they were Braun in the backyard: they all know the pain of being misled and lied to. Even Aaron Rodgers, who bet a year’s salary that his good friend was innocent like he claimed, knows that feeling. "It doesn't feel great being lied to like that, and I'm disappointed about the way it all went down," Rodgers said. "He looked me in the eye on multiple occasions and repeatedly denied these allegations and said they were not true.”

Well, at least a solemn and heartfelt apology from Braun was in order, right?

"As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect. I realize now that I have made some mistakes. I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions. This situation has taken a toll on me and my entire family, and it is has been a distraction to my teammates and the Brewers organization. I am very grateful for the support I have received from players, ownership and the fans in Milwaukee and around the country. Finally, I wish to apologize to anyone I may have disappointed - all of the baseball fans especially those in Milwaukee, the great Brewers organization, and my teammates. I am glad to have this matter behind me once and for all, and I cannot wait to get back to the game I love."

I’m so glad Braun is willing to accept his punishment and that he realizes only now that he made mistakes, God forbid he made them in the past. SeaWorld, who declined any of its current workers to be interviewed in the film, also issued a similarly obtuse reaction to “Blackfish,” listing multiple grievances and inaccuracies about its claims and sending them to fifty film critics before its release.

SeaWorld in Orlando’s show is called “Believe,” precisely the kind of Disney-fueled mythology and propaganda filled with campy pop music to cover the noise of its clinging cash registers. They want you to “believe” in the Orca as a contented, cuddly creature in chlorine captivity because they want to sell a miniature stuffed animal version after the show. Braun put on a veneer of trust and “enhanced” hitting excellence because he was the man in Milwaukee, because he knew his multi-year contract was fast approaching. They could get away with it, so they did.

At the end of “Blackfish,” the former trainers go whale watching in the Puget Sound and soon spot wild Orcas, travelling in pods with endless room to swim. The expressions on their faces are nothing short of wonder, tears flowing. One hopes this film spurs more activism, less “believing” and more caring. That’s how it should be.

One hopes a Biogenesis case like this becomes the tipping point of the steroid era. One hopes that soon we can watch an elite player without the cloud of speculation surrounding him. One hopes baseball can restore its own natural wonder and turn “the show” back into a game.

That’s how it should be.