Friday, December 17, 2004

Newsweek: Major League Baseball and Steroids

Tackling the Pros: Play Hardball
Major League Baseball's drug policies are a disgrace that threaten the integrity of the game.

Some modest proposals

By Mark Starr

Dec. 20 issue - You don't have to hit Major League Baseball or its Players Association over the head with a bat for them to take baseball's drug problems seriously. No, it requires somebody on steroids to bash them over the head a couple of times really hard before they'll think about doing something. Maybe.

Those blows have now been struck. First came the San Francisco Chronicle's account of federal-grand-jury testimony by two of baseball's biggest superstars. Jason Giambi confessed to using an expansive regimen of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, and Barry Bonds may have used steroids, too—though, he insisted, he didn't know what he was taking. Then Sen. John McCain threatened to legislate drug testing if baseball didn't quickly improve its act. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig responded by welcoming a federal initiative, and last week even the players union showed signs of buckling, saying it might agree to tougher testing before next season.

Weak leadership coupled with the union's obstructionism has resulted in an MLB testing policy that is the laughingstock of sports. Players like Giambi and Bonds may have been violating federal laws for years, while not breaking any baseball rules. Anyone with eyes, a brain and a calculator that counted to 73 realized that all the new slugging records didn't quite measure up.

At a minimum, MLB must mimic its minor leagues, which permit four random tests annually and punish all violations with suspensions. But it should go even further to make amends for grievous failings on this issue. Here's a prescription for serious change.

More testing: Once each season is a joke; it's an open signal that a player can return to his cheating ways until next year. Year-round random testing is a must.

Ban more drugs: Steroids are just part of the problem. Tests now exist for other performance-enhancing drugs, like human-growth hormone, that aren't yet banned by baseball.

Harsher penalties: Currently a first-time offender risks neither suspension nor public disclosure. A three-time offender faces only a possible 25-day suspension. Nail the cheats. If the penalties are serious, the players will take them seriously.

Team penalties: Baseball's management has turned a blind eye to the problem. Penalize teams whose players flunk drug tests. Fines don't deter owners. Lost draft choices might.

Disincentive clauses: Players love incentive clauses in their contracts. How about disincentive clauses for illegal drug use that take money out of their pockets?

A "Caminiti tax": The tiniest tax—on team revenues and player salaries—would generate millions. The money could be used for treatment programs and research on performance-enhancing drugs. It might help avert more tragedies like the recent cocaine-related death of 1996 N.L. MVP Ken Caminiti, whose drug problems, he said, began with steroids.

Get the message out: MLB should invest in a big, national public-service campaign aimed at young people who model their behavior after the pros. Don't think of it as hypocrisy; think of it as reform.

Nobody believes that even a comprehensive MLB program will end all abuses. BALCO, the lab alleged to have dispensed performance-enhancing drugs to elite athletes, may be the centerpiece of this scandal, but it can hardly be unique. There has always been more investment in cheating than in detection. But with the U.S. government—indeed much of the world—making anti-doping a priority, the science of detection is gaining ground. Baseball doesn't require a foolproof system. When the threat of penalties outweighs the rewards of cheating, the tide will turn.

Which is why baseball shouldn't be overly distracted by peripheral concerns like record books. Record books don't command history. The collective memory of baseball fans does. And we will remember this generation of record-breaking sluggers—the Asterisk Generation—for its tarnished legacy, one in which deception trumped achievement.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

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