The Baseball Players Union Should Take a Stand

Original Post: July 23, 2013

Instead of answering more questions about the scope of performance-enhancing drugs in their sport, Major League Baseball players could turn the conversation completely around, focusing attention on the players who want to compete within the rules on an even playing field.

The timing may be right for it to happen. What will be needed is a significant change to the labor/management relationship regarding the league’s drug policy.

Baseball Players Need a New Strategy on PED

For years, the Major League Baseball Players Association refused to agree to random drug testing of players. Union leaders Don Fehr and Gene Orza argued such testing would infringe on players’ privacy rights and require players to prove they were innocent.

They were consistent and they were adamant. There would be no random drug testing of Major League players.

But the use of performance enhancing drugs gave users a perceived advantage. As use of PED in baseball became more widespread, players evolved in their view of drug testing with a growing number of players taking the position that testing was needed to ensure fair competition.

In 2002, a USA Today poll of 556 Major League Baseball players found that 79% would accept independent testing for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

The players union capitulated. And though the first drug policy was considered weak in terms of testing and penalties, it was a start.

11-years later, drug testing procedures are more effective, though they need strengthening, while the penalties remain too weak to serve as an effective deterrent. Players who fail a drug test and are unable to successfully appeal it, are suspended for 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second and face a lifetime ban for a third offense.

The risk/reward dynamic still is tilted toward reward.

The Ryan Braun Case

The Ryan Braun suspension this week has re-opened debate.

The Milwaukee Brewers outfielder was suspended for 50-games in 2011 for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. But, that suspension was overturned on appeal after Braun argued that the protocol for handling the testing samples wasn’t followed.

Now, he has been suspended for the remaining 65-games of the 2013 season without pay. The suspension is not due to a failed drug test, but instead for evidence uncovered against him in the investigation of the scandal-plagued Biogenesis clinic in Florida. The investigation is expected to result in the punishment of fifteen or more additional Major League players, including New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

While Braun will forfeit $3.3 Million dollars while serving his suspension, the five-year, $105 Million contract extension he signed in 2011 —- the same year in which he was National League MVP and failed that drug test —- remains in effect. The Brewers couldn’t void the contract or unilaterally change the deal, even if they wanted to. MLB’s collectively bargained drug agreement prevents teams from voiding contracts because of violations of the league’s drug policy.

The financial reward for cheating was substantial, but, as ESPN’s Buster Olney pointed out, Braun’s standing in baseball has taken a big hit.

Players no longer are as likely to defend their peers when it comes to using performance-enhancers. They are fed-up with being lumped in with those who are breaking the rules. They’ve seen the damage done to their collective reputations by the “steroid era”.

The players have had their character questioned and they are responding by becoming more active and vocal in taking a stand against players who cheat.

This is a much needed and pivotal change in the effort to address PED in sports.

Peer group influence is vital to changing a culture of irresponsibility or poor behavior. If we are to curb cheating and have an even playing field in sports, the players themselves have to decide that its important to them.

If Major League Baseball players have reached that point, they have a chance right now to make it clear to everyone by being proactive.

MLB Players Could Change Public Perception With One Move

Here’s how.

The player representatives should canvass their teams and if they have a consensus, they should tell the MLBPA to change its stance entirely on the issue of drug testing. They should tell the union to not only agree to additional drug testing and stronger sanctions for cheating, but become advocates for it.

And, to make their position even clearer, players should agree to allow Major League teams the right to void the contract of a player found to have used performance-enhancing drugs.

These moves would do the players and the sport enormous good. It would be greeted enthusiastically by fans and would blunt much of the upcoming negativity as more suspensions are announced from the Biogenesis investigation.

Unions don’t voluntarily surrender rights. I understand that. But, this is a special case in which the majority of players are being damaged, on the field and off, by a minority of players who are making a conscious decision to cheat.

If players value their character and want to protect the integrity of their game, they should take a stronger public stand in favor of competing honorably.

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