Labor war on drugs

Whatever the Mitchell Report was supposed to do, it's caused baseball and the players union to renew hostilities. Plus: NFL.


King Kaufman
December 13, 2007 4:00PM (UTC)

7:40 p.m. EST: After five years of relative peace, the labor war could be back on in baseball.

After Sen. George Mitchell urged commissioner Bud Selig not to punish active players named in his report on drug use in baseball, which was released Thursday, commissioner Bud Selig called the report "a call to action" and pledged to take that action, saying he'd punish players on a case-by-case basis.

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That led to a strangely subdued but still pointed performance by players association executive director Donald Fehr in the finale of Thursday's trilogy of press conferences. Fehr, without flashing anger, criticized Mitchell's methods and the fact that the union, unlike Major League Baseball, had been denied a chance to review the report before its release. He defended the current drug program, pointed out that the union has agreed to renegotiate it several times over the last two years, and accused Selig of a lack of respect.

"In my view anyone interested in fairly assessing the allegations against the players should consider the nature of the evidence presented, the reliability of the source, and the absence of procedural safeguards [that] individuals who may be accused of wrongdoing should be afforded," Fehr said.

Asked if he thought Mitchell's investigation and report had been productive or detrimental for baseball, Fehr said, "I hope that I will conclude, down the road, after we've had a chance to look at it and whatever happens happens, that it was not detrimental. I'll let you know when I'm in a position to make that judgment. I'm not today."

He called the refusal to let the union review the report before its release "extraordinarily unusual in a collective bargaining context. And doing that, in and of itself, says something about the bargaining relationship."

"I would like to believe that in similar circumstances," Fehr continued, "if we had a report about a collective bargaining subject that had been the product of a lot of recent negotiations, and it was going to be released and the commissioner and his office were going to be asked to comment on it, that we would have had -- we would have been willing to provide it to him."

I think Fehr was about to say, "We would have had the courtesy," but stopped himself short. His equanimity seemed calculated to me. This is a tough subject for the players. Any move the union makes to protect their rights can be portrayed as condoning drug use and cheating.

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So Fehr spoke softly, as it were. "I would ask everyone to remember that a strong collective bargaining agreement does have certain components to it," he said, "and one of those is a mutual respect for agreements that have been reached."

Mitchell had urged Selig to take the information in the report, learn from it, and work together with the players to combat the drug problem. Selig talked about "reaching out" and having a "positive dialogue," but then said those named in the report may be punished on a case-by-case basis, giving no clue about how he'd make his decisions. Fehr made it clear the union will be on the case every time, reminding Selig about "the full panoply of due process protections that our agreements contemplate."

Whatever it was the Mitchell Report was supposed to do, the fallout is that it's put in jeopardy the labor peace that in large part has been responsible for the unprecedented financial success baseball's enjoyed for the last few years.

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5:35 p.m. EST: Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Thursday that he embraces every one of the 20 recommendations former Sen. George Mitchell made in his report about baseball's drug problem, which was released earlier in the day.

But at his own press conference a little less than two hours after Mitchell's ended, Selig swatted down Mitchell's most important suggestion, that he forgo punishing active players in an effort to focus on the future rather than the past.

"Sen. Mitchell acknowledges in his report the ultimate decisions on discipline rest with the commissioner," Selig said. "And he is correct. Discipline of players and others identified in this report will be determined on a case-by-case basis. If warranted, those decisions will be made swiftly, and of course I will give thorough consideration to Sen. Mitchell's views on this subject."

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Players association head Donald Fehr was scheduled to hold his own news conference at 6 p.m. EST Thursday. Expect him to consider Selig's statement a declaration of war.

The many allegations of illegal drug use, possession or purchase by players in Mitchell's report are reliable to varying degrees. The section on Roger Clemens, for instance, seems pretty damning, though Clemens quickly issued a denial through his attorney, who cited the fact that the Rocket has never failed a test.

On the other hand, ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack called a story about Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, told by former teammate Larry Bigbie, "fourth-string hearsay." It's worth noting that Mitchell's two star witnesses were former Clemens trainer Brian McNamee and former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski. Radomski spoke to Mitchell as part of a plea agreement in his own case, while McNamee was threatened by federal authorities with prosecution if he didn't cooperate.

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Selig said that he would unilaterally implement any of Mitchell's recommendations that he could, but others are subject to collective bargaining. "I'm also committed to these recommendations," he said, "and I will be reaching out to Don Fehr and the players association in the immediate future to urge him to join me in accepting them and to begin a positive dialogue on these matters."

A positive dialogue doesn't begin with an ominous threat to swiftly punish any wrongdoers identified in a document that contains information that a presumably objective lawyer just called "fourth-string hearsay."

Selig may be reaching out, but he's got a hammer in his hand.

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3:55 p.m. EST: Former Sen. George Mitchell has thrown down the gauntlet for the man who hired him, baseball commissioner Bud Selig. But he also gave him an out.

Mitchell's 304-page report on baseball's drug problem was released Thursday afternoon at a press conference in New York. It's available in PDF format at MLB.com and on the Web sites of all 30 clubs. An HTML version was also promised.

Twenty months and $30 million in the making, the Mitchell Report names names, most notably Roger Clemens, seven-time Cy Young winner and arguably the greatest pitcher in history. Other big names accused of buying, using or possessing illegal drugs include Clemens' friend and teammate Andy Pettitte, along with Barry Bonds, of course, and former Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada, who was traded from the Baltimore Orioles to the Houston Astros on Wednesday.

The report blames "everyone involved in baseball over the past two decades -- commissioners, club officials, the players association, the players" -- for the "widespread illegal use of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball." And it makes recommendations about how baseball should proceed to deal with the problem.

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One of those recommendations is the challenge to Selig. It's an appeal to rise above the righteous indignation and the calls for harsh punishment that always accompany such revelations, even when they're just, as Mitchell acknowledges, allegations.

"I urge the Commissioner to forego imposing discipline on players for past violations of baseball's rules on performance enhancing substances," Mitchell writes, "including the players named in this report ..."

And then comes the out: "... except in those cases where he determines that the conduct is so serious that discipline is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game."

So Selig, who was to hold his own press conference at 4:30 p.m. EST Thursday, can punish away, citing the integrity of the game. That would be a huge mistake.

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Mitchell acknowledges that there are "valid arguments" against forgoing punishment, but writes, "A principal goal of this investigation is to bring to a close this troubling chapter in baseball's history and to use the lessons learned from the past to prevent the future use of performance enhancing substances. While that requires us to look back, as this report necessarily does, all efforts should now be directed to the future. That is why the recommendations I make are prospective. Spending more months, or even years, in contentious disciplinary proceedings will keep everyone mired in the past."

I'd go even further than Mitchell. If the purpose of his investigation was to find out what happened so baseball could "use the lessons learned from the past to prevent the future use," then what baseball should have done was declare an amnesty and establish a truth-telling commission.

"From my experience in Northern Ireland," Mitchell writes, referring to his role as a broker in that region's peace process, "I learned that letting go of the past and looking to the future is a very hard but necessary step toward dealing with an ongoing problem. That is what baseball now needs."

Then why did Mitchell allow himself to be set up as, essentially, a prosecutor without subpoena power? The only active player known to have cooperated with Mitchell was Jason Giambi, who did so only under threat of punishment speaking out of turn -- for saying what Mitchell's report eventually concluded, that everyone in baseball was to blame for the steroid mess.

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The rest, either fearing punishment or on the advice of a union charged with protecting its membership from a unilateral management probe, declined. With an amnesty, how many would have sat down with Mitchell? The players association wouldn't have had much of a reason to advise them not to.

Mitchell's right. If what Selig wanted by launching Mitchell's investigation was to get to the truth and learn from the past in order to deal with the future, he should forget about punishment and start working on cooperation with the players. It's long overdue anyway for baseball's owners and the romper-clad capitalists who play the game to understand that their proper relationship is as partners in a commercial enterprise, not as traditional employers and employees.

But maybe the investigation had another purpose, to give Selig and the owners he works for leverage in the ongoing battle royal with the players. The Mitchell Report spreads the blame around, but if Selig's going to be handing out suspensions in its wake, how many management and ownership types do you figure will go down?

It's Selig's turn at bat within the hour. Let's see if he listens to the man he hired to find the truth.

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Mitchell report names leaked Wednesday [PERMALINK]

Note: This item and the ones below it constitute the original Thursday King Kaufman Sports Daily column.

Leaks were leaking in the media Wednesday about what's in the Mitchell Report, which was to be released Thursday. Former Sen. George Mitchell has a news conference scheduled for 2 p.m. EST. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig will hold his own press conference two and a half hours later, union chief Donald Fehr an hour and a half after that, at 6.

The Associated Press, citing sources who had seen the 304-page report, which top Major League Baseball officials were allowed to review starting Monday to ensure that it doesn't contain any confidential information, says it details a "serious drug culture within baseball, from top to bottom."

The AP and the New York Times both report that All-Stars and even Most Valuable Player and Cy Young award winners will be among the 60 to 80 players named, and that the report calls for baseball to beef up its testing program and have it run by an outside agency.

The Washington Post reports that Mitchell's recommendations include adding an educational component to the anti-drug program.

Mitchell blames both the commissioner's office and the players union, anonymous sources are quoted saying.

The idea that there's a "serious drug culture within baseball, from top to bottom," is about as dog-bites-man as it gets. We've known that from the steady stream of revelations over the last few years, culminating with the guilty plea last spring of former New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski in a steroid-distribution case. Radomski became one of Mitchell's star witnesses.

The headlines will come from the revelations, or allegations, of specific big stars who used illegal drugs. There have been about 50 players implicated already in one way or another, so there may not be a lot of surprises, but any new names, if they're big ones, will be sensations.

Mitchell reportedly will try to focus attention not on the names but on the systematic, top-to-bottom drug problem in baseball. Good luck if there are really any big stars whose names haven't come up before.

Other than the details of who's going to have his name named, there doesn't figure to be too much in Mitchell's report that'll surprise anyone who hadn't already come to believe that baseball had a "serious drug culture." And really, who among us still doubted baseball's great 21st century truth teller, Jose Canseco?

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Bobby Petrino flees [PERMALINK]

Hard to blame Bobby Petrino too much for running away from the Atlanta Falcons situation as fast as his college-coach legs would take him. The rookie coach resigned Tuesday and then, after what must have been very sudden, very fast negotiations, was announced at a press conference a few hours later as the new head coach at the University of Arkansas.

The Falcons sank to 3-10 with Monday night's blowout loss to New Orleans, which came on the heels of Michael Vick's being sentenced to 23 months in prison on dog-fighting charges. Nice week the Falcons have going here.

Ordinarily, I'd say Petrino acted like a jerk by not even having the courtesy to finish the season before bolting for an easier job. But if press reports about how unhappy the Falcons have been with Petrino are to be believed -- and there's no reason they shouldn't be -- then he did the team a courtesy by leaving.

So another hot-shot college coach bites the dust in the NFL. When are these guys, and more important when are the guys who hire these guys, going to learn that being a college head coach is not a steppingstone to being an NFL head coach? The title is the same, but the jobs are totally different. That should be obvious from the number of college coaches who fail in the league and the number of NFL failures who thrive in college ball.

The best path to NFL head-coach-dom is being an NFL coordinator, a job that, to be fair, Petrino did hold for one year in 2001, when he coordinated a mediocre Jacksonville Jaguars offense. But big-shot college head coaches don't want to become pro coordinators because, comparing job titles and salaries, it looks and feels like a demotion.

It isn't. It's a promotion from the minor leagues to the majors. Until NFL teams figure that out, they're going to keep hiring the Bobby Petrinos of the world to be bad head coaches instead of, more likely, good coordinators.

So Petrino's headed back to the minors, where he'll no doubt succeed. He has done it before.

Nobody was going to succeed in Atlanta this year. The Falcons will be lucky if they can finish the year without being visited by a plague of frogs. But the odds were against Petrino's succeeding anywhere in the NFL. And they'll remain that way until he gets the proper training, which means he's going to have to be somebody's assistant.

Don't hold your breath.

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NFL Week 15, Part 1 [PERMALINK]

Denver (6-7) at HOUSTON (6-7)
Both teams are hanging on to slim playoff hopes, which for the Texans is a nice way of saying they'll make the playoffs if they win the rest of their games and pigs fly.

Well, not quite, but they're two games behind Cleveland for the last wild-card spot, and there are two teams between them and the Browns.

Denver's a little closer. The Broncos are two games out of the wild-card spot as well, but they're also two games behind San Diego in the AFC West, with no one standing in their way and a game against the Chargers scheduled for Week 16. The pigs would just need to kind of jump real high.

The game will be on the NFL Network.

The Broncos are coming off a 41-7 keel-hauling of the Chiefs last week, so they've got some momentum. Which is completely illusory. What kind of momentum did the Broncos have after they lost to the Chargers 41-3 in Week 5? Their next game, they beat Pittsburgh. There was a bye week in between, but then again, this is a short week, so you know what all that means. Nothing.

The Texans took care of Tampa Bay last week, despite the Bucs having the momentum of a four-game winning streak. Backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels was at the helm, and he'll get another start Thursday with Matt Schaub still hurting. Rosenfels played reasonably well, and there's a solid chance he'll do that again at home against a defense that isn't that good.

I'm taking the Texans. After that upset of Tampa, they've got the momentum.
Kids: Houston

This story has been changed since original publication.

Previous column: Inside sports-talk radio

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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