Thursday, August 1, 2013

More Drugs In Sports

by Bill Holmes

Here we go again. I was hoping that when I wrote about Lance Armstrong in November 2012 and again in February 2013 when he was interviewed by Oprah, that would be the end of the big sports drug stories. Of course I was wrong. I wasn't naïve enough to think it was the end of all performance enhancing drugs (PED) in sports. There will always be a few who try to cheat the system. I just thought the rampant big name drug use was behind us.

It was thought that after the Congressional hearings, the Mitchell Report and the approval of real drug testing in Major League Baseball (MLB) that the worst of their performance enhancing drug (PED) problems were in the past. Now we find that there are 20 to 25 players being investigated in the Biogenesis affair. Ryan Braun, a former Most Valuable Player (MVP) is only the first to fall in this investigation.

On July 22, 2013 it was announced that Ryan Braun has been suspended for the rest of the 2013 season. That amounts to 65 games without pay. In Braun's case that is about $3.25 million. That sounds like a lot of money but it's chump change. When he comes back next year he still has approximately $117 million dollars left on his contract. That's guaranteed money. Some punishment, can I get that deal?

There are several other big names implicated in the Biogenesis investigation. Alex Rodriguez, another former MVP, is the biggest fish. Melky Cabrera and Bartola Colon, two who have already failed drug tests and been suspended before, are mentioned. Nelson Cruz, a Texas Ranger, has also shown up in reports. Cruz has never been linked to PEDs in the past. We should find out in the next few weeks who is involved and what punishments will be imposed by MLB. Suspensions can run anywhere from 50 games to a lifetime ban.

The real news about this whole affair is that there seems to be an attitude shift among MLB, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the players, the owners and the fans. There seems to be almost unanimous disgust with the cheaters this time. During the PED revelations of the mid 2000's there was apathy among the various groups involved including the fans. The only reason increased drug testing was implemented was because Congress, in their normal grandstanding manner, threatened to get involved. Neither MLB nor the players union (MLBPA) wanted that. Since those changes only a few major league players have failed tests and been suspended. Most positive test results have been among minor league players. It's ironic that the whole Biogenesis affair came about not because of failed drug tests but because of investigative reporting. You can read the Miami New Times report here.

There are many different forces in play here. One of the biggest is that Alex Rodriguez is the face of this issue. A-Rod is an almost universally hated baseball player. Even most Yankees fans aren't crazy about him. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is adamant about getting PEDs under control during his term. PEDs exploded during his watch and he doesn't want that to be his legacy. Fans seem to be more upset this time around. Maybe it's because we're tired of being lied to by these overpaid athletes. You can make a mistake, apologize, promise to never do it again and be forgiven. What you can't do is revert to the same illicit behavior and expect to get off the hook again. It's not so much the cheating that gets you in trouble it's the lying to the fans that does it. Much like we forgive politicians for their misdeeds but not for the cover-ups. Check the Richard Nixon Watergate fiasco.

The biggest shift has come from the players. In the first round of PED disclosures the players supported those accused or at least had no comment. This time we are hearing players say that cheaters need to pay the penalties and those penalties need to be meaningful. This change in players' and fans' attitudes seems to finally be influencing the MLBPA. The once no testing ever stance has changed to support for testing and even punishment for those actually caught.

Clean players are now realizing that those who cheated may have robbed them of a roster position or a pennant or a batting championship or a gold glove or even an MVP or World Series championship. A clean player may have lost bonus money because they didn't win one of those awards or make the all-star team. A clean player may have lost millions of dollars during free agency because there were a couple of roided up players with better numbers who got the biggest contracts. Not only are they now realizing this but some of them are speaking up about it, at least in private. This is a very important shift. If cheating players can't find sanctuary in the clubhouse, dugout or playing field they will eventually be eliminated from the game. A few will always slip by, at least for a little while, but if all the stakeholders are against PEDs they will be significantly reduced.

The MLBPA has finally said that they will not defend players who have been caught using PEDs. This is a significant change from their prior stance of blocking, stonewalling, denying and supporting at all costs every player accused of using drugs. They have also finally agreed to blood tests which can detect drugs not caught by urine tests. They will still defend players falsely accused or those who may have accidentally taken a banned substance. That's OK, that's their job. It is very possible to ingest a small amount of a banned substance that is in a totally legal product. The union needs to be around to make sure only the guilty get punished.

My hope is that this groundswell of change sticks. That the players fully realize that these cheaters have been stealing from them. That the fans are fed up with overpaid jocks who lie to them and shed crocodile tears when they get caught. These guys are cheats and liars. They are never sorry until they get caught.

There are two other important issues here. Those who are caught cheating must be made to suffer real consequences. Ryan Braun losing $3.25 million for cheating but still being guaranteed $117 million is a joke. A-Rod still has over $100 million left on his contract. The next agreement between MLB and the MLBPA must have clauses in the standard player contract that allow voiding the contract in the case of drug suspensions. It also must be at the club's option. Players can't be able to turn a lower dollar contract into a more lucrative free agent deal because of a drug suspension. The other issue is that major league owners and general managers (GM) have to stop signing the bad guys to lucrative and long-term contracts. The players can help here too. If owners and management know that cheaters won't be welcomed into the clubhouse that makes it easier to resist the temptation of signing one. No GM wants to be accused of ruining team chemistry. For a final nail in their professional legacy, let's make these cheaters ineligible for the MLB Hall of Fame for life.

The country seems to have finally turned a corner on the PED issue. Lance Armstrong hasn't been forgiven. No one wants anything to do with A-Rod, including his team. Ryan Braun seems to have burned all his bridges.

My opinion on the whole sports and PEDs issue has always been you have two choices if you want to be a real sport with real fan support and trust. You can either allow all PEDs or you can allow none. You can't be in the middle. Players and fans need to know there is a level playing field. It's level if everybody is chemically enhanced or if nobody is. I hope players, owners and fans choose the “none” option. Nobody knows the long-term health effects of PEDs and I'd hate to essentially force every athlete to use them just to compete.

I keep hearing that the MLB decisions on the Biogenesis affair will be announced any day now. I hope the findings are conclusive and the penalties are appropriate. I hope that some of the bad guys like A-Rod don't use technicalities to prolong the final outcome and squeeze a few more dollars out of the system. I also hope that if there are innocent players implicated in this mess that they are cleared. It's time to get this behind us so we can enjoy the final months of the pennant races and the post season.

I fear that we'll be revisiting this issue again with other sports. For now let's get on with the games.


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