Ryan Braun tested positive for performance enhancing drug use in 2011. The National League MVP, Braun insisted that the incriminating sample was contaminated, and went to great lengths to vindicate himself. Braun passed a polygraph test, commonly called a lie detector, and appealed the positive result. His suspension was eventually overturned on a technicality. In 2013, after being named in the Biogenesis scandal along with fellow mega-star Alex Rodriguez, Braun essentially confessed to steroid use, claiming he has “made some mistakes” and accepting a prolonged suspension.
In the sports world, the polygraph has become a way to double down on wild claims and ardent defenses. During the bounty scandal, Saints coach Joe Vitt offered to take a polygraph test to prove his innocence. Roger Clemens, that bastion of integrity, offered to take one in 2008 to refute doping claims. After the debacle before Congress, former pitcher David Wells called for Rafael Palmeiro to submit to a polygraph test.[ref]Honestly, we needed only a dash of common sense in that instance.[/ref]
The problem is, the people who go to the greatest lengths to refute claims are often guilty of them (Here’s looking at you, Lance). And the polygraph can be used as a tool to buy cheaters more time, dampening speculation because of the perception that if the athlete would willingly take the test, they’re probably being honest. It’s essentially a bluff.
To those with knowledge about the polygraph test, Braun’s vindication by the test was nothing but a red herring. Due in large part to the misleading moniker, the polygraph test is often seen by the public as gospel, when it is actually unreliable and quite simple to hack. Calling the test a “lie detector” is counterproductive to the public good, enabling mendacity when they’re looking to quash it.
If you understand the process of the polygraph test, you understand why it is deeply flawed. After hooking a person up to a series of wires (nerve-wracking enough for the innocent), an administrator will first ask basic questions. The administrator measures the reaction to these simple truths, before moving on to loaded questions designed to get the test-taker to lie. These are purposely misleading because they put the respondent’s integrity at risk – if answered truthfully, the responses would deter a federal agency, so the test-takers tell harmless lies. These physiological responses are also recorded. Then, we move into the crux of the exam. The important questions are asked; if the respondent reacts more to a question than their earlier lie, the response is recorded as a lie. If it incites a smaller reaction, it is recorded as truth.
There’s a number of strategies to game this system. Thinking troubling thoughts about the “innocent” lie masks the true lies. Counter-strategists also recommend concealing a nail or tack and applying pressure to throw off the response. Irregular breathing or thinking about other subjects while answering will also impact the results. It’s no surprise that many foreign spies have passed polygraph tests administered by our government.
Early in the development cycle of the polygraph test, the FBI called the inventor a “phoney” and a “crackpot.” Despite this, they use these tests today to screen their applicants.
Polygraph tests are inadmissible in American courts. Except for tennis courts, and the court of public opinion.
In 1983, Bobby Riggs appeared on a syndicated television show hosted by criminal defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey. On “Lie Detector,” Riggs, a retired tennis star who lost the famous Battle of the Sexes to Billie Jean King, insisted that he did not fix that match. Riggs passed the test. In 2013, 30 years after he was cleared on national television, an ESPN investigative report presented damning evidence that Riggs, a noted gambler, threw the clash against King.
Thanks in large part to improper trust in the polygraph test, in American sports, cheaters often prosper.