Commentary > SportsBiz
Protecting millionaires from each other
Competitive pressure on players to take steroids means union should back tougher testing policy.
March 5, 2004: 1:58 PM EST
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (CNN/Money) - It's easy for unions, even ones that represent millionaires, to sound reasonable when they take a hard line on drug testing of their members.

Gene Orza, general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association, made a spirited defense of the union's position on testing ballplayers for steroids at a conference here this week.

To him, the issue is not whether steroids are dangerous.

"It's a far cry to say that because it's bad for you, [a union] should participate in a structure which allows your employer to punish you for doing something that you shouldn't be doing," said Orza. "That's not my understanding of what unions do for their employees."

Orza was speaking at the Congress of Sports, a gathering of executives, academics and other sports business experts sponsored by Sports Business Journal and sports marketing firm Octagon. After the panel, Orza admitted to me that there is a strong union justification for testing for steroids and other so-called "performance enhancing" drugs.

When asked, Orza conceded some players feel a pressure to take those kinds of drugs, in order to be able to compete with other players believed to be using them. That competition -- which ultimately means jobs and big-dollar contracts -- is enough to make players ignore the health risks.

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Does that mean some union members take drugs they would prefer not to take?

"That very possibility is what went into the agreement," he said, referring to the 2002 labor pact, in which the MLBPA agreed for the first time to allow testing for steroid use. "If we thought it did not exist, we never would have found a need to try to compromise."

Union leaders under fire

Orza and union chief Don Fehr have been under fire this week on the issue of steroid abuse among players, after a federal investigation alleged that a San Francisco-area steroid lab supplied drugs to players.

The investigation revealed the names of superstars Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, as well as journeymen like Randy Velarde. Bonds and Giambi have denied taking steroids. Velarde, who is out of the game, has not been reached for comment.

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The heat is on the union because the drug-testing procedure in the current labor agreement is pathetically weak, with few real sanctions for players who fail the steroid test.

First-time offenders won't even be publicly identified or suspended. Repeat offenders face brief suspensions and fines equal to only a few percent of even the minimum pay levels.

Sports writers are focused on whether the use of steroids deprives the fans. Many say the practice threatens the "integrity" of sports records and results. The problem with pill-poping, goes this reasoning, is that it damages the fans' trust in athletic "purity."

That's absurd. The greatest damage being done is to the long-term health of players taking these drugs.

Privacy versus health

Unions properly have a duty to protect union members' rights and privacy, but they have a greater duty to stop any health risks to members, especially if they are under coercion to take those risks. That's true even if other members -- rather than management -- are the ones responsible for that pressure.

Orza is used to taking unpopular positions, and he bristled at the suggestion he and Fehr don't worry about the health of his members by the position they take against a tougher drug testing program.

"Let's assume steroids are very bad to take, but I have no doubt that they are not worse than cigarettes," Orza said at the conference. "I would never say that to the clubs as an individual who represents the interests of players, 'Gee, I guess by not allowing baseball to suspend and fine players for smoking cigarettes, I am not protecting their health.'"

Orza insisted that the current drug testing plan should be given a chance to work. And he vowed the union would not agree to any changes to the testing procedure agreed to in 2002.

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Reports that some players have come to training camp not as bulked up with muscles is a good sign. "If they're coming back to camp lighter," he said, "maybe it's because the agreement is working."

Several times in the past my email inbox has overflowed with messages ranging from insulting to obscene when I've defended the union's position in labor/management issues. Not this time.

The union can't abandon its role of safeguarding players' rights. But it can't ignore this either: tougher measures on steroids are needed to protect its members from the pressure to take these dangerous drugs.  Top of page

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