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January 14, 2005

Under The Knife

The Testing Agreement

by Will Carroll

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The new drug policy instituted by MLB and agreed to by the Players Association is being touted as historic and game-changing. Given the nature of sports labor relations these days, it's certainly nice to see some sort of agreement. Bud Selig has gone from a media piņata to a Landis-like visionary in the course of a few short months. After seeing the details and hearing the often-wrongheaded media coverage, however, I'm left thinking that the sample cup is half-full.

I'm optimistic that this policy will do what it's intended to do. While I believe that Commissioner Selig does feel that he has the game's best interests at heart, he is also smart enough to realize that he is not fighting a war on drugs, but a battle against bad public relations. There are few outside the halls of NFL management that would argue that pro football is steroid-free. It is almost completely steroid-controversy free, due to a proactive policy that accomplished nearly a decade ago what baseball hopes to do now.

The basic points of the new policy are well known. There are new progressive penalties, beginning with the first offense. There are now random tests, some of which will come in the offseason. Each player will be tested at least once per year with the chance of more. There's actually no limit, meaning Jason Giambi, David Eckstein or any other player could see the man with the cup stop by his locker once a week. Is a ten-day suspension enough to suppress the use of performance enhancing drugs? Two provisions make it seem so.

First, the MLBPA has acceded to a suspension being without pay, the first time they've done so. For some players, this could mean millions of dollars lost for longer suspensions. As an example, the NBA's Ron Artest will lose more than five million dollars after his suspension for beating a drunken idiot in the stands. If the recently signed Carlos Beltran were to take a ten-day suspension, he'd cost himself around $944,000. The $16,000 a first-year player might lose pales in comparison, but is proportionately painful.

Second, and more importantly, the policy calls for violators to be publicly identified. It would be hard to hide such a suspension--and harder to keep something secret in today's media environment--yet this should not diminish the "scarlet letter" threat the new policy holds. The scorn heaped upon Giambi and Barry Bonds this offseason shows just how pointed this could be. It might seem that fans might be a bit more forgiving to their hometown superstar than they would be to, say, a Terrmel Sledge, a player who has actually failed a drug test previously. As far as I know, no one protested or made a sign when Sledge took the field this season, but the first to have the Cotton Mather-like finger of the Commissioner's office pointed at them will deal with a media storm that will serve as an object lesson to other players.

The policy has some odd provisions--suspensions are calculated in days rather than games for no apparent reason--and fails to address one of the more serious drug problems in baseball. The longstanding use of amphetamines--"greenies"--by players will not be curtailed by the new policy, because they are not included on the list of banned substances. It also does not seem to address the mechanics of offseason testing, something that could be especially tricky for players who live outside the United States. While the agreement was designated as "tentative" in some portions during today's announcements, the 2002 CBA had similar provisions that to this date are still not firmed up.

Buster Olney of ESPN typified the media's response on Thursday, foolishly calling for apologies from Don Fehr and Gene Orza. The attack is out of line. Fehr and Orza could have held this process up, refusing to re-open a part of the negotiated and in-force CBA. Instead, they listened to their membership and apparently asked for nothing in return but fair treatment. Credit should also be given to Selig for his even-handedness in negotiations and understanding how important this would be to the image of the game.

With a hammer held over them by Sen. John McCain, the lords of baseball managed to find a compromise position in a reasonable amount of time. While far from perfect, Thursday's accord should accomplish the goals of both sides. It will do little to stop the use of performance-enhancing drugs unless the owners are actually willing to spend and save. They'll need to spend dollars to create a credible testing program that won't fall years behind the technologies of the cheaters. They'll need to stop taking in all the money that the big slugging of the past decade has brought them. Remember, the most popular part of All-Star Week is the Home Run Derby.

Most importantly, they'll need to spend money on public relations. It's this control of the media that separates the NFL's drug problems from those of MLB. Baseball has, at the very least, restored to players the right to be considered innocent until proven positive. The sample cup may be half-full, but remember, there's no way to test for the next THG yet and there is no perfect drug policy.

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