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How 'play ball' can also mean 'play fair'

After Major League Baseball suspended Brewers' star outfielder Ryan Braun for violating drug rules, other MLB players and the players union reacted with surprising support for restoring integrity to pro ball. That's a welcome shift for honest sport.

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    A statue of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is displayed outside of Milwaukee's Miller Park where a banner showing Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun hangs. The MLB suspended Braun on Monday for violating its anti-drug program.
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On Monday, Major League Baseball suspended a famous player, Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, for violating its drug rules. On the face of it, this could be seen as yet another sports star nailed after a probe of possible use of performance-enhancing drugs. But like the game of baseball itself, Mr. Braun’s error led to a surprising result.

The players union, rather than cry foul or criticize the process as it has done in the past, welcomed his punishment. More important, many in professional baseball spoke out about the need for players to rely on their natural abilities to ensure a level playing field for honest competition.

“I’m tired of the steroids,” New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after the Braun announcement. “Just do things the right way, bottom line.”

Recommended: Drugs in sports: A quiz

“I think everybody’s frustrated, especially the players,” said Seattle Mariners pitcher Joe Saunders. “We all feel a little bit cheated.”

“The good thing about this is we’re cleaning [up] the game,” said Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. “That’s the way it should be.”

After years of trying to rid baseball of steroids and similar drugs, MLB may finally be rounding third base. The breakthrough started with an MLB investigation of the now-defunct Biogenesis clinic in Florida, which is accused of supplying drugs to a number of players. Yet it is the reaction to the Braun case that suggests a culture shift is already under way among players to maintain each person’s integrity in honoring fairness in the sport.

For all the prods and probes from on high, athletes themselves must bring honesty to the game. Sometimes that happens when a sport’s reputation is brought low after a top player is caught doping. Why bother to watch, fans ask, if a sport is not a true test of ability? Why look up to a star athlete, many kids ask, if so many are caught lying about their drug use?

Braun’s fall is a key moment for pro baseball to rise. He is a five-time All-Star player and former National League MVP who failed a drug test in 2011 but got off on a technicality and then profusely proclaimed his innocence. When confronted with new evidence this year by MLB, he finally admitted, “I have made some mistakes.... I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions.” His suspension runs through the rest of the season, costing him millions of dollars.

This incident is the kind that many institutions, whether in business, education, or government, often use to seek change in the character of all employees. When a cheating scandal strikes a school, for example, new rules and tougher punishments are sometimes seen as not enough. After a case of massive cheating on a test in 2012, Harvard University is trying to address the “broad cultural trends” that led to it and the need for students to work with integrity. If Harvard does adopt its first honor code, “it is critical that students feel ownership” of it, states an academic committee report.

For pro baseball, the Braun affair may be the critical pivot from relying mainly on fear of punishment to a strategy in which the players embrace integrity out of respect for the game, the fans, and for themselves. For the national pastime, that’s the future.

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