Bud Selig’s Crusade against Organized Labor

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(I was going to write about WAR today, but something else seemed a bit more pressing. My rant about statistics and those who misuse them will be coming soon…)

Last night on Baseball Tonight, their panel of analysts was given the opportunity to sound off about the latest news regarding the Biogenesis “scandal.” Mark Mulder ripped into Ryan Braun for the report that he refused to answer PED-related questions during his June 29 meeting with MLB officials investigating Tony Bosch and his Miami clinic. Chris Singleton countered Mulder a bit, observing rightly that at this point, there is absolutely no reason why Braun should answer MLB’s questions on this issue.

The only reason we are focusing on Braun to begin with is because the league leaked the report of Braun’s overturned PED suspension in 2011 in a transparent attempt to shame the Brewers’ outfielder and destroy his credibility and his reputation. The fact that we even know about the content of Braun’s meeting with the league officials in this case indicates that MLB is not nearly done fighting a PR war against the star player who had the temerity to point out the flaws in Bud “Acting Commissioner for Life” Selig’s inadequate efforts to rid baseball of PEDs. Given the repeated “leaks” of this information to the media, there is absolutely no reason why any player should want to talk to the league.

However, Singleton’s point was less about the merit’s of Braun’s refusal than it was about the message that players and the league are sending to children. According to Singleton, Melky Cabrera’s story is one of significant moral value: a player who is suspended 50 games for using a banned substance, who later signs a 2-year contract worth $16 million. What does it say to “our” children, Singleton asks, that a “dirty” player can still profit in this way?

(As always, Keith Law was the only rational, non-hysterical voice in this debate, observing the problem that the forthcoming Biogenesis suspensions will present for a number of teams trying to assess their roster needs for a playoff push.)

If we disregard Singleton’s idiotic “won’t someone think of the children” argument, the implication of his position remains dangerous. Is he proposing that a ballplayer, once he has been suspended for a drug violation, should never be allowed to play baseball again? That he should only be allowed to play for the league minimum? He seems to want to throw out the disciplinary structure for PEDs—agreed upon by the players and the league (i.e., the owners)—altogether, opening the way for harsher (and more arbitrary) penalties to players who “set a bad example.”

There are a number of important issues at play here, and they extend well beyond the bounds of Major League Baseball. The forthcoming suspensions related to the Biogenesis case are likely to lead to a battle between the league and the Players’ Association about how to “clean up” baseball and what rights the league has to act unilaterally. Bud Selig reportedly wants to suspend some players—including Braun and Alex Rodriguez—for 100 games, the prescribed suspension for a second violation of the existing drug policy. His argument: that by lying about their alleged use of PEDs, Braun and Rodriguez actually have committed two violations of the drug policy.

This argument is nonsensical on its face. First of all, neither Braun nor A-Rod has ever been suspended for a positive drug test. (Braun’s positive test officially never happened, since it was thrown out for procedural mistakes by the league.) Second, as should be evident to even the most fervent anti-drug activists within the league, suspensions that rely solely (or even primarily) on the testimony of Tony Bosch should be viewed with extreme skepticism. Bosch—who, as the alleged provider of PEDs, is a better target for MLB’s legal actions—has cut a deal with the league in exchange for naming names of players who visited his clinic. He has about as much credibility as Senator John Yerkes Iselin. (“I have here a list of two hundred seven persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party!”)

So there are a number of suspensions coming for players after the All-Star Break. (Best to wait, though—we wouldn’t want to ruin the nation’s enjoyment of an exhibition game by letting known tainted players decide its outcome.) Beyond the merits (or lack thereof) of these suspensions, this issue points to a much deeper rift in the management-labor relations of MLB, professional sports more broadly, and the nation as a whole.

I am reminded of President Obama’s refusal in 2011 to intervene in the NFL labor dispute, arguing that a group of billionaires (owners) and millionaires (players) should be able to find a reasonable way to share the ample profits produced by the NFL. His remarks displayed a profound ignorance of what was (and is) at stake in such confrontations: not only player salaries (which are generally distorted in public opinion by the extravagance of the salaries of star players), but also important questions about health care (particularly relevant in the NFL given that the league is getting rich at the expense of players’ lifelong concussion problems) and the fundamental rights of unions to negotiate contracts for the good of all members.

In the present case, Bud Selig is seeking to unilaterally redefine the standards for drug suspensions and punishments. The Players’ Association must not let this happen.

There are ways that the league and the MLBPA can work together to remove PEDs from baseball. By working together over the past decade, they have already taken significant steps towards “cleaning up” the game. There is a good argument to be made for harsher penalties for positive (and confirmed) drug tests, and there may even be an argument to be made for suspending players when there is strong non-test-related evidence that the player has violated the league’s drug guidelines. But these are issues that must be worked out through collective bargaining and collaboration between all involved parties, rather than by a commissioner who by most accounts is seeking vengeance for being embarrassed by Braun’s successful appeal.

The MLBPA faces an uphill fight here, given that the league has controlled the flow of information from the beginning of this scandal. Someone in the league leaked Braun’s positive test, despite guidelines mandating that test results remain private until the conclusion of all testing and appeals. Once Braun won his appeal, the test should never have been made public. The league has further sought to portray Braun, A-Rod and others as arrogant flaunters of baseball’s positive moral efforts to provide a wholesome product, and by many polls they seem to be succeeding in this attempt. Public opinion clearly is behind Selig in his effort to throw the book at the Biogenesis-connected players.

Still, public opinion should not dictate the course of labor relations. The players have the right to fair treatment under the existing CBA, which has set clear standards for drug suspensions. When Selig violates these regulations, he will be, in effect, unilaterally throwing out the CBA, acting as a dictator rather than an appointed and accountable representative of the interests of the whole league.

(As an aside, I find it difficult to believe that all owners are uniformly behind Selig in this effort, since different teams are going to be impacted to different degrees. The Steinbrenners are surely privately cheering for A-Rod to receive a lengthy suspension so that they don’t have to pay him—the CBA specifically forbids teams from imposing penalties related to drug testing beyond those of the league. But the Athletics and Rangers will likely have a very different take on the situation.)

Selig’s efforts in this matter represent everything that is wrong with management-labor relations in America, where labor’s power to protect its members has been consistently eroded in recent years and decades. Yet it is hardly unexpected. If we, as a society, are not willing to defend underpaid public school teachers and hard-working government employees, why would we be eager to protect the labor rights of wealthy professional athletes?

The answer is that we must protect their labor rights because professional athletes, like everyone else, are entitled to clear, fair, and equitable working conditions. Like everyone else, they should not be subjected to the self-interested whims of management without recourse to the protection of their union, and, if necessary, legal action to keep their employers from engaging in vindictive and recriminative actions. It is not despite, but because of the money involved that the players must prevent Selig and MLB from taking the actions they are about to take. The outcome of this dispute should be of interest to anyone who believes in fairness and equality.

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