I'm ready to jump sides on the steroid testing issue. As the BALCO scandal spreads and the heat gets turned up on Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and others, it's time for the players union to give up its opposition to testing.
I've long been against random drug tests in sports for a few reasons. The first is a civil rights issue. I believe random workplace drug testing is wrong. I've never been asked to pee in a bottle by an employer, and I've always felt that if it were at all possible to do so, I would refuse if one ever did ask me.
There's no good reason for me or anyone else whose work doesn't affect public safety to have to prove our innocence of illegal drug use any more than there is for me to have to prove that I don't hold up convenience stores or break legs for the mob.
Athletes aren't airline pilots or bus drivers. If they're using drugs, it doesn't hurt anyone but themselves. If there's no probable cause, no credible suspicion of drug use, they shouldn't have to prove themselves innocent.
And I may be out in left field on this but I believe it: I think the prevalence of random drug testing in sports has normalized the idea in the real world, made it more palatable to working people. I think it's less and less likely all the time for people to stand up for their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure because they've heard about those searches going on for years in the sports world.
The other reason I've been against drug testing is because I've never been able to figure out where the line should be drawn between legal and illegal "performance-enhancing substances." Why are the illegal substances illegal? Because someone made them illegal. Why? Because they enhance performance. So do water and training at altitude.
I never wanted the sports I care about to go down the road of the Olympics, which in this area are beyond absurd. In 2000 a gymnast was stripped of her gold medal because she'd taken cold medicine that even the testers agreed gave her no competitive advantage. This was not terribly unusual or surprising. The real suspense in any Olympics isn't over who will win a given event, it's whether that winning performance will stand up to the drug test.
So why am I ready to have baseball players join the specimen-bottle line? Because there is credible suspicion. The criminal case centered around the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative has brought the issue to a kind of critical mass.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that federal investigators were told that personal trainer Greg Anderson, now facing a steroid conspiracy charge in the BALCO case, furnished steroids to his longtime friend and client Bonds as well as Giambi, Gary Sheffield, three other baseball players and football player Bill Romanowski. Sheffield told ESPN that he'd take a test for anyone who could set one up, but the union quickly stepped in and said no. Bonds and others have also said they'd submit to tests.
The typing and chattering classes, which for the most part have only whispered occasionally about steroids while players ballooned up and home run records fell, have become crusaders. Steroid use is rampant in the big leagues, is the prevailing tone these days. It's obvious! Look at Barry Bonds' neck!
This has become a serious problem for the game. Not for its integrity, always portrayed as so fragile in discussions of drug use and gambling, though in fact rarely in danger. The steroid scandal has become a problem because it's become bigger than the game.
Baseball has reached the point where it starts to look silly to promote the exploits of Bonds, Giambi or any of the other marquee big men without acknowledging that, yeah, there's some serious circumstantial evidence that some of their records are tainted.
Gary Thorne and Jeff Brantley opened ESPN's first spring training telecast Wednesday almost apologizing for covering the game rather than the steroid business. "While much of the news regarding major league baseball is about events going on off the field," Thorne said, "make no mistake about it: For the players, for the fans, and even for us as broadcasters, we're going to cover those other stories, but what's fun and exciting right now is the game."
Since you can't prove a negative, there's no way Bonds will ever be free from the suspicion that his record-breaking home run tear starting in 2001 was tainted, and the same goes for Sammy Sosa's 60-plus home runs in '98, '99 and '01, Giambi's MVP year in 2000, and so on. But they can go a long way toward alleviating those suspicions by testing clean now.
Baseball's current testing program, introduced in the 2002 contract, is widely viewed as a toothless joke. For years, neither the players nor the owners have had much stake in catching drug cheaters. The dirty players didn't want to get caught, the clean ones didn't want to lose any slugging teammates to drug suspensions, and the owners didn't want to know if the guys whose homers were putting butts in the seats were doing more than eating their Wheaties.
Union officials argue convincingly that the program was agreed to by both the players and the owners, and less convincingly that it does have teeth. "I don't think it's fair for people to criticize that program before it's even begun," said MLB Players Association lawyer Michael Weiner. Referring to the survey testing last year that found 5 to 7 percent of players dirty, triggering full testing, he said, "People said at the time that the survey is a joke, the threshold will never be met, and there won't be any more testing. It turned out the survey was serious, the threshold was met and now we have testing individually."
That's true, but since the testing isn't year-round, it's ridiculously easy to pass, and even those who don't pass have to test positive over and over and over before the punishment starts to get serious. "You'd have to be a complete moron to get suspended," Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers told the Dallas Morning News. And even though the program was agreed to in collective bargaining, this is a different world than it was even in 2002. The issue needs to be revisited now. Too much damage will have been done by the time the contract comes up again in 2006.
Baseball has a genius for bizarre anti-marketing moves and botched public relations. But Bud Selig spending years trying to convince the world that his product stinks pales in comparison to steroid suspicion overshadowing the actual playing of the games.
It's in the business interest of both the owners and players to lift that cloud of suspicion, even if it means no home run records fall for a while. The players should agree to real, year-round testing. The owners should agree on an amnesty period to make the idea more palatable to the players. Letting all existing records stand no matter who tests positive now and giving players a few months so the dirty ones can get clean before the new testing program kicks in ought to put enough public and media pressure on the players to agree.
And I have no idea if there's such a thing as a bulked-up but clean slugger, but if there are a few, and they push hard for the union to accept testing so they can clear their names, so much the better.
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