While the majority of Americans were focused on the NFL conference championships about to take place last weekend — the games had the most viewers in over 30 years, in part by including three top-10 television markets — Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun accepted the 2011 National League MVP award at a quiet ceremony in Manhattan.

Normally a joyous event, the ceremony for this past season’s award was an awkward affair for all involved. Braun recently tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug during his award-winning 2011 season.

Even after the positive test, Braun has asserted his innocence and kept his award, stating through a spokesman that there are “highly unusual circumstances surrounding this case.” Most baseball writers and fans have taken an uncharacteristically sympathetic approach to this case and have kept an open mind on the matter.

This isn’t the first time in baseball history that a former hero has been implicated as a steroid user. In fact, a 2007 report by former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) implicated over 80 current and former players as steroid users. Further, between 1990 and 2010, 18 MVP awards were given to players who later were found to have links to steroids.

So why is it that when Braun claims he’s innocent — as so many players have — there is a tendency in baseball circles to listen to his argument, or even to want to believe his innocence?

Is it because Braun is one of the most likable players on one of the more enjoyable teams of the 2011 season? This is possible, since there is a tendency to make excuses when likable figures make mistakes.

However, that standard does not fit the steroid era in baseball. At their peak, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Mark McGwire were some of the most popular players in all of baseball. But when their steroid scandals became prominent, each realized their popularity could not shield them from scrutiny, and all three faced an ugly end to their careers.

While he is likable, this does not sufficiently answer the question as to why fans want to believe Braun is innocent. Could the public’s desire to find Braun innocent represent the racial inequalities still found in modern baseball? It’s unlikely. While it’s true that only 8.5 percent of MLB players identified themselves as black and 27 percent identified themselves as Latino (the lowest since 1996), the perception of steroid use seems to transcend race. Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi are examples of three former MVPs who have faced overwhelming amounts of media scrutiny due to performance-enhancing drug use, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.

The common traits shared by many vilified steroid users — but certainly not all — are their larger-than-life muscles and power-hitting numbers, neither of which applies to Braun.

Braun has hit for over 30 home runs in four of his five years in the major leagues, but this number does not set off any alarms in the steroid era of baseball. Further, Braun’s slugging percentage for the 2011 season (.597) is well below that of villains such as Bonds and Sosa, who both topped .700 at certain points in their careers. In fact, Bonds slugged .863 in 2001, a staggering number compared to Braun’s .597.

While Braun’s personality certainly plays a role in the public’s willingness to listen to his arguments claiming his innocence, he lacks the same outlandish physical features that were found in Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco and that grabbed our collective attention. The image of steroids in baseball became one of players who look like body builders hitting 60 or more home runs a year, not of a player with a career batting average of .312 who stole 33 bases in his MVP season.

For the first time in the steroid era of baseball, the public is at least willing to listen to a player’s explanation as to why he tested positive. If Braun is correct and there really is a “highly unusual” detail in this case, there is a chance his reputation can be salvaged. But baseball fans have grown weary of superstars being implicated as steroid users, so no matter how different Braun may be, his leash will remain very tight.

Regardless of the fact that Braun does not fit the mold of the public’s perception of a “steroid user,” baseball fans should still be wary of his explanation. The findings of the Mitchell Report have shown that even players that look “clean” could be using performance-enhancing drugs to gain a competitive edge. Nobody — including Ryan Braun — should be above suspicion.

Corey Blaine is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. THE BLEACHER SEATS appears every Friday.

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