Commentary

MLB union bears share of burden

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:11 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Donald FehrAP Photo/Dennis CookDonald Fehr, executive director of the MLB players' association, seems to have underestimated the effect steroid use would have on the legitimacy of players' achievements.

Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, has begun his offensive against the Major League Baseball Players Association. On the day Alex Rodriguez staged a theater of bizarre logic, with murky partial answers providing the cover, Selig said publicly that he deserved no blame for the steroids era, that the union was primarily at fault and that, given the chance, he "wouldn't do anything differently."

When pressed during numerous appearances before Congress, Selig said he was committed to ridding the sport of performance-enhancing drugs, but during the past few days he has sounded far more committed to ridding the game of the union.

Selig has spent the week attacking one union flank, but Don Fehr, executive director of the players' association, must fight an opponent even more formidable than Major League Baseball: The growing truth that on the biggest issue in his quarter century of leadership, Fehr has failed to protect the most important asset of his members -- their reputations.

And now it might already be too late.

Fehr is a brilliant and tough tactician. His intelligence level is frightening. He is resolute and passionate about a world view that is under constant attack by an anti-unionism that's been in vogue since the early 1980s. He is not being paranoid if he envisions a mounting offensive.

The day following the Rodriguez show, Red Sox owner John Henry called for a league salary cap. Since buying the Red Sox in 2002, Henry has engaged in big-money, two-team bidding with the Yankees for Jose Contreras, Alex Rodriguez, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling, while making opulent Yankee-like deals with Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo. As the union appears to be at its most vulnerable, Henry and Oakland Athletics owner Lewis Wolff, two Selig allies, have called for a salary cap over the past 90 days. Hear the drumbeat.

Selig is engaging in cynical opportunism, spending political capital from the Rodriguez scandal to push the union into a weaker negotiating position. As a collective, baseball has failed except for its remarkable ability to print money. But instead of taking a statesmanlike leadership position -- by saying something like, "I am disappointed and frustrated by the lack of cooperation by the union, but ultimately, as commissioner presiding over the entire sport, players and owners, I must take full responsibility" -- Selig told Newsday's Wally Matthews, "I honestly don't know how anyone could have done more than we've already done."

His position is not one of shared responsibility, but of a familiar offensive playbook: Blame the players. Selig said Rodriguez had "shamed the game." But the commissioner has publicly said nothing nearly as strong about club executives (Brian Sabean and Peter Magowan, for example) named in the Mitchell report who in clear, unambiguous detail engaged in and profited from documented levels of shameful behavior that hasn't been nearly scrutinized enough.

As more players come forward, demanding stronger penalties, in a posthumous attempt to reclaim the legitimacy of their own statistics and accomplishments, the union -- on the implications of the steroid issue only -- risks looking less in touch with an emerging desire of its membership.

Donald Fehr
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty ImagesIn January 2008, Fehr addressed questions from the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a hearing following the release of the Mitchell report.

Fehr has been criticized for not allowing more testing of the players, including blood tests. He has been criticized for not independently testing the membership in-house and ridding the union of the dirty players. He, in short, has been criticized for not allowing baseball to do whatever it wants to ascertain which players used steroids and strengthen the game's testing structure.

To his credit, though, he has rightfully resisted. For each suggestion is largely anti-player, wholly anti-union. He sees the tide, whether in baseball or the larger society, and the weaker person would have caved by now. The money in baseball makes players the easy target (even though money should have no bearing on a person's rights as an employee), and Fehr's style -- serious, highly intellectual, impatient, intimidating, unsentimental toward the baseball-card nostalgia the sport has used to hide its colder intentions -- does not often play well with a public that still wants to treat a billion-dollar industry like a game.

Fehr's job is far more difficult than it was in the Marvin Miller era, from 1966 to '82. With Miller, the questions were so much easier. The union stood on the right side of every moral and ethical issue in the game. The players were treated poorly. They had no right to free agency or the natural player movement that was only fair. The owners refused to sit at the same table with the players.

Today, the union has consolidated its power and become so formidable that it is a veritable partner with the league. The union appears inflexible, its positions unsympathetic. Its players were involved in using illegal drugs, and it was not only slow to act, but largely unwilling. Fehr cannot be blamed for the union's lack of energy on the issue, for the game's elders, its best players, did not clamor for change. The call for change came from an unlikely source: the low-level players who became player representatives, while the big names -- in another departure from the union's history when the star players led the association -- stood silent. One reason for the silence, a former player told me, was the stars were responsible for much of the use.

Where Fehr miscalculated was on recognizing fully on which battlefield the real fight was taking place. He fought the steroids battle, rightly, as a power struggle between his membership and their employers. He fought along privacy grounds, and along the same lines Miller had fought since 1966: owners versus players.

But neither he nor the players seemed to appreciate the more important front that threatens to destroy them all: the catastrophic effect steroid use would have on the legitimacy of their achievements. If the problem of drug use in baseball reached such a widespread, critical point -- say, for example, at which an entire era's best players have all been disgraced -- there would be no retroactive mechanism to protect the accomplishments of the clean players. This doomsday scenario is happening right now, and every player presumed to be clean -- from Curt Schilling to David Ortiz to Derek Jeter -- is now trying to reposition himself, too late, for posterity.

Like Selig, Fehr and the union had an opportunity to win this issue with some form of statement to the players -- or even to the public -- suggesting the union would begin to conduct a campaign to do whatever it took to win back the trust of the public for its players. The union has never, en masse, confronted the issue of the long-term effect of the steroids era on players' individual reputations.

Instead, the union sent a memo to its players advising them to be careful what they say during the Rodriguez "media frenzy," that the information in the public is wrong.

That might be true, and likely is, but the union could always explain its position.

Part of the reason for the union's inaction in this regard is that players were blindsided by the totality of their collective problem, of just how many players were using. As another former player told me, none of the players truly believed the numbers were high enough to merit real attention, an odd and stunning admission in the wake of Brady Anderson, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds: "When I saw it was 104 names, I was shocked," the former player said. "I mean, going on body type, you couldn't have named 20. This wasn't a hurricane, a disaster you could see coming four days away. This was an earthquake."

The result has been a mad scramble. A day following the Rodriguez news conference, Jeter illustrated the scope of the issue in Tampa.

"One thing that is irritating and it really upsets me a lot is when you hear everybody say, 'It was the steroid era. Everybody was doing it.' You know, that's not true. Everybody was not doing it," he said. "I think it sends the wrong message to fans, to baseball fans; I think it sends the wrong message to kids, saying that everybody was doing it, because that's just not the truth. I understand there's a lot of people who are big-name players that have come out and allegedly done this and done that, but everybody wasn't doing it."

And yet, one has to wonder if Jeter and the other great players of his time are having this conversation with Fehr directly, because that, and not a group session with the press, is the dialogue that should have taken place years ago -- and needs to be taking place now.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.