Opinion

Why baseball balked at integrity

Profits trumped drug policy. It's time for Congress to take the reins.

By

Between December's Mitchell Report and this month's congressional grilling of Roger Clemens, many of baseball's biggest names may have lost their ticket to the Hall of Fame. But all of the emphasis on players' use of performance-enhancing drugs misses a much bigger issue: Major League Baseball (MLB) itself took the performance-enhancing step of looking the other way in order to juice profits.

To be sure, the players must be held accountable. Yet the more critical effort lies in restoring integrity to the baseball organization. To do that, Congress should stop refereeing he-said, he-said battles – and start working to replace baseball's commissioner with someone who can make wholesale changes.

Compared with most other major professional sports, MLB was very late in defining banned substances, methods of testing, and punitive measures that would enforce compliance.

Recommended: Drugs in sports: A quiz

Why such procrastination? The 1994 season is a big part of the answer. That year, a player's strike cut the season short – there was no World Series. It was hugely damaging to fan confidence, and more important, to revenues. The strike cost owners millions of dollars in lost income.

After such a dismal year, the owners and the commissioner (Bud Selig, a former owner) needed to get the game going to make money again. The players, meanwhile, wanted to play and earn huge salaries. So they all tacitly agreed to postpone the moral necessity to set definitive standards for performance-enhancing drugs and the procedures for ensuring compliance or punishment.

MLB owners, their general managers, and players (the union) then created an environment from 1994 to 2005 where some guidelines were set but compulsory testing and punitive measures were lacking. Other professional and amateur sports already had these in place – some for more than a decade. MLB didn't implement random testing and severe consequences until 2006.

Consequently, any activity that happened before 2006 along the lines of steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), or other substances deemed to be "illegal" today is irrelevant. It's sad to consider how many professional athletes fell victim to these performance-enhancing temptations, but it's worth considering the larger context. Their employers provided them with all kinds of drugs (legally administered by team physicians and trainers) to speed their recovery after injuries. In the absence of strict measures, it's easy to see how many players took the next step of using drugs that were banned in other sports, yet not by MLB.

The years rolled by without any real efforts to get a policy in place. Why? Baseballs were leaving the ballpark in record numbers. Home run title quests were bringing folks back to the game. New fans filled the seats. Stars got huge contracts. Owners got lucrative cable television deals. MLB's business thrived; its leadership and ethics languished.

Congress is partially culpable, too. MLB operates under a renewable exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act that Congress grants. How can Congress continue to grant this exemption when baseball has failed the public trust so spectacularly?

The public hasn't been this outraged about America's pastime since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when several Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to "throw" the series. The backlash was severe – and the official response should guide policy today.

In 1920, the owners, realizing they had a huge problem, appointed the first commissioner of baseball: Judge Kenesaw Landis, a federal judge from Chicago. This month,in contrast, the owners gave commissioner Bud Selig an extension.

It is time for Congress to find a Judge Landis. Instead of holding hearings, Congress should take the reins of baseball away from the owners and replace the commissioner with a retired military officer of the highest rank. Generals Peter Pace or Eric Shinseki would fit the bill nicely. Both men are experienced in overhauling institutions and making them better. The commissioner's terms should be reviewed by the same congressional committee that renews the antitrust exemption.

Another possibility is to appoint an ombudsman who would be empowered to confidentially scrutinize baseball's enforcement of its drug policy. Names would not be the issue – just progress on the integrity of the sport that is part of the American fabric.

Without a house-cleaning, children across America will see another headline about a fallen baseball star and mutter, "Say it ain't so, Joe."

Ryder Stevens is a retired Army chaplain who taught leadership and ethics to combat commanders.

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