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June 13, 2007

The Big Picture

Getting to the Truth

by David Pinto

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While performance enhancing drugs (or PEDs) have caused a great deal of controversy over the last ten seasons, they have also helped bridge the divide between owners and players--both sides have agreed that they want drugs out of the game. This led to the MLBPA and MLB working together to modify the CBA to improve testing and punishment.

The current probe threatens to derail that progress. When Major League Baseball charged George Mitchell with leading an investigation into past steroid use, Fay Vincent got the issue right:

"I think the investigation is the right step," Vincent said. "I don't think the issue is punishment, I think it's: 'Shouldn't the players be called to task for cheating, even if there is no punishment?' I think baseball has to recapture the moral high ground."

If only that were true. This investigation was doomed from the start by the BALCO leaks and the revelation of Bonds' failed amphetamine test. Both events broke an agreement of confidentiality. The combination has perhaps closed the door on any voluntary cooperation by players in the future. Right now, players face a number of possibilities if they speak on the record to Mitchell's investigation. This became all too clear when Jason Giambi spoke with USA Today about steroids:

"I was wrong for doing that stuff... What we should have done a long time ago was stand up--players, ownership, everybody--and said: 'We made a mistake.'"

Since then, Giambi has been threatened with punishment if he didn't talk to George Mitchell, had pundits wonder if the Yankees should void his contract, and become the subject of a dubious report that he failed an amphetamine test. Is it any wonder players see the Mitchell probe as a witch hunt?

Baseball needs a better way to get at the truth. Maybe they can take a lesson from South Africa. When apartheid ended there, the legislature passed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. It was a truth commission, and charged:

(t)o provide for the investigation and the establishment of as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes, and extent of gross violations of human rights committed during the period from 1 March 1960 to the cut-off date contemplated in the Constitution, within or outside the Republic, emanating from the conflicts of the past, and the fate or whereabouts of the victims of such violations; the granting of amnesty to persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective committed in the course of the conflicts of the past during the said period; affording victims an opportunity to relate the violations they suffered; the taking of measures aimed at the granting of reparation to, and the rehabilitation and the restoration of the human and civil dignity of, victims of violations of human rights...

What's important to recognize is that the act provided a mechanism for confession and forgiveness. Providing such a commission for baseball should be much easier, since no one is accused of murder or any crimes against another person. To make this work, the players, owners, commissioner, and the government need to agree to the following:

  • No player should be punished by fine or suspension for any admitted performance-enhancing drug use before the start of testing in 2004.
  • The Justice Department agrees not to prosecute players for drug use. (It seems the government isn't all that interested in prosecuting users anyway, so this shouldn't be a big deal.)
  • Players need to come clean publicly and honestly about their use of PEDs.
  • Management needs to testify, too. I'd like to hear from GMs, trainers, clubhouse attendants about what went on and how they helped hide the use of these substances.
  • Suspend any player who does not testify truthfully or who refuses to testify and is later found to have used PEDs.

There exist many benefits to such a truth commission. Ending the constant speculation surrounding players would be a welcome relief. Instead, we can start looking at their records to debate what the drugs meant for their careers. Voters for the Hall of Fame could finally decide the worthiness of a candidate without guessing about steroid use. And we can finally gauge how fans really feel about the use of these substances. Do they boo and shun, or forgive and forget?

The other benefit is one to help police the sport in the future. Knowing when players started using drugs and the type of drugs used allows sabermetricians to study the change in performance associated with their use. It might be possible to build a probabilistic model to estimate the chance that a change in production was due to performance enhancing drugs. Knowing patterns of procurement and use might allow baseball to look for behaviors that indicate abuse.

Yes, players' reputations will suffer. Fans forgive, however, as they've done with Jason Giambi. But the players need to come clean and show contrition. George Mitchell needs to use his gravitas with both MLB and Congress to bring about the conditions required for honest testimony. Perhaps with that, the "steroid era" can finally pass into history. Without a truth commission, the investigation is destined to be stymied by a lack of player cooperation.

Players and owners built some trust during the re-negotiations of the drug testing policy. The witch-hunt atmosphere of the Mitchell investigation threatens to set that back. The commissioner's office and the DOJ need to make clear to the players that a public, honest recounting of the era won't lead to punishment, but can bring closure to the issue. It's certainly an alternative worth considering.

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