Fehr can't have it both ways
If MLBPA leadership intends to use tougher steroid testing as a bargaining chip, then the time to act is now.
There will be a day when we will know if the union leadership's stance on steroid testing is phony, a day when we will know if the eloquent and ardent defense that Don Fehr articulated in Congress on March 10 was heartfelt. There will be a day when we will know if he was merely posturing, as a tactic for delay, so he could eventually swap out this so-called principle.
And that will be the day we will know if the union leadership has been completely open and direct with its brethren about its intentions. That will be the day we will know whether the leadership is willing to gamble with the health of some of its members, and in effect, set a price on their well-being.
Seven weeks have passed since Fehr spoke in the commerce committee's hearing on steroids. In recalling early discussions with the owners about testing, he said, "We thought then, and believe now, that the testing of an individual, not because of anything he or she is suspected to have done by anyone, but merely because he or she is a member of a particular class, is simply at odds with fundamental principles of which we in this country have long and rightly been proud."
Sounds good. Some of the players he represents are certain Fehr is devoted to this principle, and because of this, they continue to follow the path he is blazing for them -- even when there is a strong fundamental disagreement about the union's direction.
There is a sense among many within the union that a majority of the players would prefer to have a rigid steroid policy implemented now. As in: Immediately.
Some players believe that if a vote were held, the majority voting for rigid testing would be solid; others believe it would be overwhelming. Two years ago, before BALCO and before the issue of steroids exploded, a staggering 79 percent of players polled by USA Today indicated they wanted independent steroid testing. This makes sense: many players perceive the users to be a detriment to the non-users, believing the users take jobs and money away from non-users, effectively smear all of the players.
Braves reliever John Smoltz recently told Sports Illustrated he believes that if union members were polled, a majority of them would want the same tough testing and penalty system being used in the minor leagues. "Purely speculative on my part? Yes," said Smoltz. "I'd be in favor (of polling and stricter testing) because I would consider any solution so people are not talking about steroids. It's not good for the game."
In the March 10 hearing, Oregon Senator Gordon Smith asked Fehr about whether he "could let (the players) vote on the specific issue of random drug testing?"
"We don't submit to a vote -- ideas in the abstract," Fehr replied. "It comes up in connection with bargaining. But let me assure you, Senator, that the notion that somehow the players are divorced from the union that represents them is simply wrong."
And Fehr is correct -- to a point. Many players cite Fehr's beliefs about privacy rights when they speak about the rationale for the current weak system. "If we go hell-bent after the (steroid) users," one player said last month, "are we then going to stop guys from going out and partying and having a good time?" From another player: "I understand what Don is trying to do."
It's about privacy; it's about constitutional rights. That is what the leadership has led the players to believe.
But is it really about negotiating?
There is suspicion that the union leadership doesn't want to address the steroid issue until the end of the current labor agreement, which is set to expire Dec. 17, 2006. That way, the leadership will have one more bargaining chip to bring to the table. The suspicion is they will eventually agree to a stronger testing system in return for some other tangible benefit. They might seek a higher minimum salary, for instance, or some adjustment in the luxury tax; the question of steroid testing could be useful for them, as they wage their eternal war with ownership.
If that occurs, that's when we'll know the whole privacy principle that Fehr spoke of in Washington is a complete joke -- a sham, like blue tap water in designer bottles he's selling to the players for $10 a pint.
For many of the players, this is a very personal and important issue. Many are tired of being smeared as a group. They believe they are shielding cheaters. And because of the weak testing system that is filled with loopholes plenty large enough for syringes, individual players are compelled to consider the question about whether they would benefit from using them.
For many of the players -- and we'll never know exactly how many, as long as the union leadership refuses to poll individually -- this isn't a matter of negotiation, points to be bartered in collective bargaining. This is about livers and kidneys and hearts and health, about their livelihood, about the integrity of their work. This is about the lives they are living now, and will live for years to come.
But, hey, they are following their leaders, who are telling them it's about privacy and principle. The instinct of the players is to stick together, to not rock the boat. And it may be that their solidarity is effectively being used against them, in a way that a majority would never want.
If the union leadership intends to negotiate this issue for the next collective bargaining agreement, Fehr owes it to the brethren -- to the silent majority -- to agree to a tougher system now. As in: Immediately. Otherwise, it will be left to the players, for at least the next three years, to absorb the fallout from the pathetic testing system.
Seven weeks has passed since Fehr spoke eloquent words about privacy principle in Congress. There will be a day when we know if he really meant any of them.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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