Over the weekend, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun joined at least a half dozen other former Most Valuable Players who have been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, in his case (as in that of two-time MVP Alex Rodriguez) at a time when such substances are banned and whose use can result in suspensions (in Braun’s case, the first 50 games of the 2012 season). Braun denies the accusation—“I am completely innocent”—and this, too, doesn’t make him alone. His case that he did not use banned substances seems sturdier than those of, say, A-Rod, who has actually admitted using steroids, or Barry Bonds, who during his historic seasons at the beginning of the last decade resembled an extremely ripe fruit: Braun stands at a muscle-toned but far-from-beefy 6’1”, 210 pounds; he actually passed a second test; the test he failed showed a wildly unnatural ratio in two types of testosterone—a good indicator of PED use, but not, apparently, a dispositive one. Jonah Keri makes the additional point that while PEDs are illegal and there is no reason why offenders should not be punished, there is much conflicting evidence as to whether using them actually enhances performance. The main reason the story feels strange—in addition to the fact that, after more than a decade of this stuff, one really would have expected we were finished with these revelations—is that Braun is thought of as a guy with unusually good character: “he got straight A’s,” the New York Times noted. “He attended the University of Miami on a partial academic scholarship and has tried to apply the lessons he learned in the classroom, branching out from baseball to business. … He understands the value of his good name.”
And, of course, he’s Jewish. Part-Jewish: His father is, his mother isn’t; on the spectrum of Jewish athletes, from Sandy Koufax coming from Brooklyn and not pitching on Yom Kippur to Sage Rosenfels having only a Jewish father and explicitly rejecting being Jewish, Braun falls closer to the Rosenfels side. This doesn’t quite feel like a shanda moment. But it does feel like a letdown: Can’t we (we) have an athlete who is both tremendously successful (an MVP!) and a great guy? (This news calls, in fact, both attributes into question, since the PEDs could theoretically have unfairly boosted his play.) I’ll be hoping Braun is not lying (another thing he is now potentially on the hook for), but I’ll also be re-examining my need for my sports heroes to be Jewish, and for my Jewish sports heroes to be mensches.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.