|MLB and Drugs: A problem of substance and business||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on June 23, 2003
The Union has blocked all attempts that baseball and the American public have clamored for when it comes to an effective drug policy. Certainly they are not the only union in history to attempt to do so, however because of the high profile of baseball and its players - and baseball’s anti trust exemption (we’ll be doing a piece on the Anti-Trust exemption in our What Every Fan Should Know column in the near future), they may not be able to block the testing forever. In fact because of the Union’s stance on drug testing several members of Congress have suggested legislating a drug policy.
The Major League Baseball Players Association is concerned with only one thing today - and that is money. It is a shame because the Players Union has done many positive things over the years; they have fought the reserve clause and they have fought for better conditions and to protect the health of players. In taking their current position of blocking mandatory drug testing it seems obvious that the health of players is no longer high on their list of concerns; certainly it takes a back seat to making sure a player that hits .212 is able to make five million dollars per season.
This should scare any young athlete that is trying to get into the majors - because even if they are clean - many of the players that they will be competing against will be using performance enhancers - which may make them better than the young athlete that is not using anything. This is because of the union. Unions, at least the unions that are concerned about their members, work to make policies that protect their members and the honor of their profession. That is simply not true in the MLBPA - even the limited steroid testing policy which, went into place this season, was a battle.
Donald Fehr, the current head of the MLBPA, has also said that he will oppose any changes - and fight against a drug policy when it comes to over the counter performance enhancers like Ephedra - which contributed to the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler this spring and has contributed to the deaths of a number of other young athletes. Why? Because they are “legal”. In fact, Fehr and the Players Union are also opposed to testing for illegal drugs as they feel that it violates the privacy of the athletes.
If the union refuses to change its stance and become more receptive to drug testing it is possible that Congress will decide to institute drug testing legislation which undoubtedly would result in years of court battles. As it stands right now Major League Baseball is the only one of the major sports that does not have mandatory drug testing – they even do drug testing in the minor leagues! So how can they drug test in the minors and not the majors? It is because the minor league players are not eligible for membership in the MLBPA at this point in their careers and thus cannot be “protected” or shielded by a union that doesn’t give a damn about its members’ health.
In addition to not having a mandatory drug testing policy, presently baseball is the only major sport that does not test for recreational drugs. In fact the only testing that MLB actually does is a “survey” testing for steroids (a policy which is only valid through the 2004 season). Under this policy players are only allowed to be tested twice a year - once in the spring and once during the regular season - and these tests are easy to get around according to insiders. Even with this pitiful excuse for testing, it is written into the policy, that a player testing positive will receive no punishment! The only way that mandatory and random drug testing will become a factor the way the policy currently stands is if 5% of all major leaguers (about 60) test positive for steroids or refuse testing (and are thus considered as automatic positives).
However even that appears to be open to debate and no doubt the union will attempt to twist it. They have already done so when a certain AL Central team got together to agree that they would all refuse the test so that the quota of 5% positives would be met - which would force random and mandatory testing - the union representatives came down on them and pressured them not to do so. Eventually they caved under union pressure that they would all be “tainted” and labeled as drug users in the future - when in fact the courage to take that stand would have been applauded by fans everywhere.
However, while it does seem the MLBPA is the villain in this piece, that simply is not the whole truth. Only the clean athletes want to see the sport cleaned up. Many big names in baseball, including Curt Schilling, Tony Gwynn, Mark McGwire, Ken Caminiti and others have come forward and spoken of the rampant drug use, estimating that between 20% to 65% of athletes are using illegal supplements or stimulants.
The truth is that everyone in baseball, with the exception of the clean athletes, benefits from this illegal use of supplements and stimulants. The owners get more home runs, more records being broken and more star players, which will put fans into the seats. The agents want huge numbers and huge seasons so that they can negotiate bigger and longer-term contracts for the players and make bigger commissions for themselves.
Perhaps the biggest factor however is the fans - the average fan does not care that someone’s production jumps 50% from one season to the next or that a player puts on 40 lbs of muscle during the offseason. They love to see 73 home runs, 300 wins and other records being shattered. Only the purists, those who really love the game, are concerned about tainted records and artificial numbers that are not in line with a player’s lifetime production. The fact is that many fans simply don’t care - they are there for the thrill. Without a cry, or a walkout of fans, neither the players union nor management really has more than a public relations interest in changing the way that things are done.
Until something changes, Major League Baseball, which is trying to act without the full backing of the owners when it comes to drugs, will not be able to test for illegal drugs, stimulants or performance enhancers - legal or illegal - except for what is covered with their sham of a steroid policy.
The discoveries that I made while researching this piece really disgusted me. Perhaps legislation may be the only way for a change to take place. The MLBPA has the power to change all of this simply by coming up with a drug plan that would protect their members and not allow those who are not talented enough without supplements to make the cut and get into professional baseball. Until then there will be many Darryl Strawberrys, Jose Cansecos, Steve Howes, and Steve Bechlers on their conscience.
For another view on MLB's drug policy or lack thereof click here.