- John Helyar, Sports Business
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Have the superpowers of American sports formed a NATO-like alliance against dopers?
Or is Thursday's announcement of a Partnership for Clean Competition -- a research collaboration of the United States Olympic Committee, the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) -- more an exercise in politics and public relations?
Only time and money -- how much the group actually plows into doping detection research -- will ultimately tell. For starters, the partnership will pool $10 million over the next four years.
But the announcement is potentially significant for two reasons.
The first is that this is big bucks by the standards of underfunded anti-doping researchers, even if it's tip money by the standards of highly paid players. (A-Rod, for example, will make $10 million by the All-Star break.) The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) distributes only about $6.5 million a year in research grants, and USADA has been funding about $2 million a year in research. So the partnership's contributions, which breaks down to $2.5 million a year, really means something in those labs.
And USADA chief Travis Tygart expects many additional partners to sign on, augmenting the start-up contributions of MLB and the NFL ($3 million apiece) and further boosting research funding. The NBA, the NHL and the PGA of America have already agreed to contribute to the partnership at lesser levels, but Tygart also sees corporations such as sporting-goods manufacturers and shoe companies signing on. The U.S. Olympic Committee pulled the coalition together.
"This sets up a platform to which everyone who benefits from clean sports can contribute," he says.
The second reason this partnership is significant is nonmonetary. Some of these parties have been, to this point, noncooperative. Neither MLB nor the NFL would hear of USADA's running its drug-testing program, as USADA does for the USOC and various American athletic federations.
The NFL worked with USADA to build a drug-testing lab in Utah, but it would never cede its autonomy in setting testing procedures and developing its banned-substances list. That would only hamstring the league in collectively bargaining the matter with the NFL Players Association.
Same with MLB, only -- by all accounts -- worse. Steroid use in baseball was a can of worms that nobody in power wanted anyone outside the game to open. Until former Sen. George Mitchell came along, of course.
"Neither the commissioner or the union has ever wanted to hear of turning loose the testing program to USADA," says one baseball insider familiar with the dynamics. "Unfamiliarity has bred suspicion."
The Mitchell report recommended, among other things, that MLB turn its drug-testing over to an independent administrator.
The Kansas City Royals might win the World Series before that happens, but MLB officials will now at least be sitting at the same table with USADA and discussing the less explosive topic of science. MLB, USADA, the NFL and the USOC each will have a representative on the partnership's board of governors, which will oversee the research collaborative.
"Maybe this setup will lead to a relationship with more trust," says the baseball official.
And maybe being a founding partner of the Partnership for Clean Competition will take a little heat off MLB commissioner Bud Selig when he testifies at next Tuesday's congressional hearing on steroids.
This continues MLB's usual pattern, according to Dr. Gary Wadler, an anti-doping advocate and consultant to WADA.
"Each time there have been hearings, there's been a reaction to move in the right direction in another increment," he says.
But this isn't a public relations or political tactic, insists MLB spokesman Rich Levin -- and that's pretty much true. Though MLB didn't sign on the dotted line for the partnership until after the Mitchell report was released, the league was in serious talks about the concept with USOC chairman (and former baseball commissioner) Peter Ueberroth as far back as last summer.
Ueberroth approached MLB and the NFL with the idea, according to USOC spokesman Darryl Siebel, because the research scientists were badly underfunded and their work is vital to detecting dopers' sophisticated new drugs. Plus, Ueberroth felt, major sports interests should be working together.
The $10 million question is: Can they?
These are all major sports interests, for sure. But they don't all have the same interests. One partnership priority, according to the announcement, is further development of "a widely available, cost-effective test to detect human growth hormone (HGH)."
According to Siebel, the HGH research isn't meant just to satisfy the founding members' needs -- the testing of NFL, MLB and Olympic athletes. Rather, the partnership wants labs to develop effective doping tests that can be produced on a large scale but a low cost, so they'll be available not just to professional leagues but also to youth leagues.
Still, major issues such as HGH show in bold relief the potentially major hazards of this partnership.
The USADA already has been funding HGH testing research, as have MLB and the NFL. But the USADA has focused on developing a more reliable and economical blood test, and that is a form of testing the baseball and football players unions adamantly oppose. The two leagues have committed $500,000 apiece to a UCLA lab that is trying to develop a reliable urine test for HGH.
That should make for some interesting talk -- maybe even raised voices -- around the table of the new group's board of governors. Rob Manfred, MLB's chief of labor relations and human resources, will represent baseball. The NFL's rep hasn't been determined.
"Hopefully," says Wadler, "bringing them together on a common issue is going to be a positive."
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."
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