Thursday, May 12, 2005

Policy on steroids catches baseball player’s union in a pickle

Over the past 30-odd years, the business of professional baseball has been marked by disharmony between the owners and the player’s union. Since 1972 baseball has had 8 work stoppages (5 strikes and 3 lockouts), 3 of which led to games not being played, including the strike in 1994 which cancelled the World Series for the first time ever.
By and large, the player’s union has been the clear winner in these negotiations, winning such rights as free agency which has fundamentally changed the landscape of sports, substantially increasing the portion of profits paid to players. It has even been argued that baseball’s player's union is the most powerful labor union in the US; it certainly is in American professional sports. Comparing baseball to the NFL and the NBA, only baseball does not have a salary cap, and until recently only baseball did not have a meaningful policy to deter the use of performance-enhancing anabolic steroids.
It is that last issue, steroids, that has consumed the news lately. Over the past several years, steroids were the elephant in the corner of the room—everyone knew it was there but no one talked about it. However, the issue has become increasingly acute. In 2002 Ken Caminiti, the MVP of the National League in 1996, admitted that he used steroids during his career; in 2004 he died at 41 from a heart attack many believe was related to his steroid use. Earlier this year, Jose Canseco, the MVP of the American League in 1988, wrote a tell-all book describing how he and many of today’s biggest stars regularly used steroids. All these events prompted Congress to look into the steroid issue.
In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, a new policy towards testing was established. The old policy had “counseling” as the penalty for the first positive drug test, 15 days suspension for the second, 25 days for the third, 50 days for the fourth and one year for a fifth positive result. This is a very lenient policy in comparison with other leagues, such as the NFL and the NBA. Even minor league baseball has a more stringent steroid policy: 15 games suspension for just a first time violation and a lifetime ban for the fifth violation.
While the more recent agreement adopted this past January is harsher, it still appears generous to outsiders. Congress is pushing for even more severe penalties and has threatened to take matters into its own hands. Commissioner Selig, as a response to the pressure from Congress has recently written a letter to the labor union head, Donald Fehr, proposing stricter guideline for steroid use in the major league. In this proposal, Selig is suggesting a 50-game suspension for first time offenders, 100-game ban for a second violation and lifetime ban for the third violation.
This new proposal has placed the labor union in the hot seat. The player’s union probably will not accept these terms as is without clarification and some negotiation. Fehr has responded to Selig urging a discussion that will not involve the media. However, player’s union bargaining power might not be as strong as it has been in the past. The deal in January on steroid testing was a testament to the players’ concern over how fans might perceive the steroid situation. Fearing potential fan alienation, the player’s union will need to work with Selig to arrive at a compromise. This past week, owners have unanimously endorsed Selig’ steroid proposal and urged the players to come on board soon.
Most in the media, including Joe Morgan on ESPN, agree that the proposal is on the right track, especially with the lifetime ban after the third violation. The initial reactions amongst players are mixed with some favoring the proposal, some needing more details, and others flat out rejecting it. The timing of all these events has been interesting. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, Commissioner Selig and the owners may have the upper hand over the player’s union, and we think both parties know it.
In labor disputes of the past, mostly about salaries and revenue sharing, the players always seemed to have the support of the fans. It’s easier to be on the side of millionaire players who can perform amazing feats on the field than billionaire owners who just sit in the box and watch the game. But with steroids, public opinion has fallen squarely against the players; in the eyes of many they are cheaters who are ruining the game.
Commissioner Selig and the owners should be able to take advantage of this environment and take concessions from the player’s union as they have not been able to in the past. While the final agreement may not be exactly the program proposed by the Commissioner, it should be something close to it. If the player’s union negotiates too hard, they are likely going to be seen as steroid-using cheats who want to protect their habit. As such, the player’s union can only hope to make minor changes to the Commissioner’s current proposal. And this should be seen as one of the first victories for the owners in a long time.

By Andrew Van Fossen and Jim Wu


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