The Small Problem of Sincerity: The Ryan Braun Apology

By: J. Scott Smith

On Thursday, Ryan Braun released a statement to the media apologizing for his actions regarding his performance enhancing drug (PED) suspension.  It’s important to note that the focus of his apology was on his suspension rather than his PED use.  Braun’s apology only contains one paragraph on his PED use:

Here is what happened. During the latter part of the 2011 season, I was dealing with a nagging injury and I turned to products for a short period of time that I shouldn’t have used. The products were a cream and a lozenge which I was told could help expedite my rehabilitation. It was a huge mistake for which I am deeply ashamed and I compounded the situation by not admitting my mistakes immediately.

ESPN’s Buster Olney found Braun’s apology wanting as we all would like to know what substances Braun used and for how long.  Overall, I think most people were either unimpressed with Braun’s apology or wished he never apologized in the first place.  I think I fall into the latter category, because I just can’t believe what Ryan Braun says anymore.  As will be explored below, the inconsistencies between Braun’s vehement denial and attacks during his press conference on February 24, 2012 and his August 22, 2013 apology raise questions as to his sincerity and possibly jeopardize any chance of restoring his image with the media and public.

Crisis communication scholars have debated over the use, applicability, and effectiveness of mortification (i.e., the full apology).  Communication Scholar Bill Benoit noted mortification occurs when the speaker accepts responsibility for his or her actions and expresses remorse.  Yet mortification isn’t an end-all-be-all strategy as Benoit argued:

Mortification cannot be guaranteed to improve one’s image. One must appear sincere. We are willing to forgive some offenses more readily than others. The contrast between political (and corporate) and entertainment image repair suggests that it is probably more risky for some rhetors (politicians, corporate officials) to engage in mortification (p. 264).

Braun’s problem is not just that he previously denied PED use; he sought to vilify Major League Baseball’s drug testing program and the collector Dino Laurenzi, Jr. after winning his appeal with an arbitrator on February 24, 2012.  In hindsight, Braun’s hubris is stunning.  Certainly not reaching Lance Armstrong status, but Braun’s denials on February 24, 2012 make it hard to believe him now. 

Feb. 24, 2012: If I had done this intentionally or unintentionally, I’d be the first one to step up and say, “I did it.”

Aug. 22, 2013: I deeply regret many of the things I said at the press conference after the arbitrator’s decision in February 2012. At that time, I still didn’t want to believe that I had used a banned substance…For too long during this process, I convinced myself that I had not done anything wrong.

Braun’s statements here represent a major problem with his apology.  It’s 2013, not the Wild West of PED use in 1998.  You know what substances you’ve used and whether or not they’re banned.  If the substance is on the banned list, it’s wrong.  There is no ambiguity.  MLB even created a phone app so players can enter a supplement to make sure they’re not taking banned substances.  

Feb. 24, 2012: I’ve always stood up for what is right. Today is about everybody who’s been wrongly accused, and everybody who’s ever had to stand up for what is actually right.

Aug. 22, 2013: I know that over the last year and a half I made some serious mistakes, both in the information I failed to share during my arbitration hearing and the comments I made to the press afterwards.

Braun’s insistence that he was innocent represents one of the biggest hurdles he’ll have to clear in order to regain public trust and likeability.  Before the PED implications, Braun was a young superstar being primed as a future face of baseball.  Braun adroitly used that image in 2012 to portray himself as a righteous individual.  The problem with that approach is when the public finds out you’re not so righteous.  In contrast to Barry Bonds who the press and public outside of San Francisco already hated, Braun was beloved and that made his fall from grace steep.  Additionally, Braun sought to further discredit MLB’s drug testing program after winning his arbitration case. 

Feb. 24, 2012: We won because the truth is on my side. The truth is always relevant, and at the end of the day the truth prevailed. I am a victim of a process that completely broke down and failed the way it was applied to me in this case…The system in the way it was applied to me in this case was fatally flawed. The initial test result in question was on Oct. 1. It was a playoff game…The day of the test we had a 1 o’clock game. I provided my sample at about 4:30. There were two other players who provided their samples that day within 10 minutes of mine. The collector left the field at about 5 o’clock. There were at least five FedEx locations within five miles of the stadium that were open until 9 p.m. and an additional FedEx location that was open for 24 hours. There were upwards of 18 or 19 FedEx locations that were open between the ballpark and his house that he could have dropped the samples off…Why he didn’t bring it in, I don’t know. On the day that he did finally bring it in, FedEx opened at 7:30. Why didn’t he bring it in until 1:30? I can’t answer that question. Why was there zero documentation? What could have possibly happened to it during that 44-hour period? There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector, about the collection process, about the way that the entire thing worked that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened.

Clearly, Braun was attacking the validity of MLB’s test based on the handling of his sample in 2012, but why?  He had already won the case and knew he won because of a technicality.  Braun’s comments after the arbitration hearing infuriated MLB, which subsequently set its sights on Braun for future PED investigations.  Bob Nightengale of USA Today described MLB’s chase for Braun:

His successful appeal of a positive testosterone test led to major revisions in baseball’s sample collection process last year.  Baseball officials, from the top executives in New York to their field investigators, refuse to let it go. They want Braun — badly. They have been relentless in their pursuit, trying to make life as miserable as possible for him.

Among Braun’s 2012 denials regarding PED use included statements about how he hasn’t changed physically:

Feb. 24, 2012: I was able to prove to them through contemporaneously documented recordings that I literally didn’t gain a single pound. When we’re in Milwaukee we weigh in at least once or twice a week. I was able to prove that I literally didn’t gain a single pound. Our times are recorded every time we run down the line, first to third, first to home. I literally didn’t get one-tenth of a second faster. My workouts have been virtually the exact same for six years. I didn’t get one percent stronger.

Braun’s recent apology could be considered consistent with this assertion: “The products were a cream and a lozenge which I was told could help expedite my rehabilitation.”  Yet, Braun’s friend Ralph Sasson has just filed a defamation suit that Braun used steroids while playing baseball at the University of Miami. As the New York Times reported at the beginning of the Biogenesis scandal in February, “The connections have compelled the major leagues’ investigators to train their focus on the university’s baseball program, which they suspect is a nexus of performance-enhancing drug use.”  Why does this matter? If Braun has been using PED’s since Miami that could explain why his body hasn’t changed.

Most importantly, Braun’s February 24, 2012 press conference demonstrated that he possessed impressive rhetorical acumen.  His denial of using PEDs and attacks on MLB’s drug testing program were articulate and convincing to many.  Without revealing what substances he used and for how long, the sincerity of Braun’s recent statement remains in doubt.  Revisiting Benoit’s quote provided earlier is instructive:

Mortification cannot be guaranteed to improve one’s image. One must appear sincere. We are willing to forgive some offenses more readily than others. The contrast between political (and corporate) and entertainment image repair suggests that it is probably more risky for some rhetors (politicians, corporate officials) to engage in mortification (p. 264).

Braun isn’t a politician or a corporation.  His contract is guaranteed and he’ll only be further punished by MLB if he fails a future drug test.  He should come clean about his PED use. Unless Braun truly admits his PED use, I don’t believe he’ll ever repair his image.  And even then, it’d probably take a Game 7 World Series walk-off homer for that to happen.

*           *           *

J. Scott Smith is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri. He is a co-editor of Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration.