New steroids policy Q&A
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Bud Selig called it "a historic day."
But enough about the Brewers.
Thursday was a day the commissioner had been awaiting for a long, long time. And not just because his "40-year journey" in baseball ownership finally came to an end.
Face it. There would be no new steroid policy in baseball without Bud Selig. That's something everyone who cares about this issue would have to admit.
Of course, there would be no new steroid policy in baseball without George W. Bush, John McCain, Barry Bonds, his favorite BALCO prosecutors or literally hundreds of players who forced this issue to the top of the union agenda list, either.
But baseball needed this policy. And the commish fought for it, long and hard and publicly. He positioned himself on the right side of this issue. And eventually, everyone came along for the ride.
Baseball became a better game Thursday. But the work isn't over. The new system isn't perfect. And many questions remain about this agreement and this issue.
So here's a look at the big drug-policy questions of the day:
WHEN WILL THIS POLICY GO INTO EFFECT?
Well, it can't go into effect tomorrow, thanks to one pesky little obstacle:
It was agreed to so recently, the two sides haven't even formally written down what they agreed to yet.
But that will take place in the next few weeks. So when spring training begins, so will the new steroid rules.
HOW LONG WILL THIS POLICY BE IN EFFECT?
Through 2008. That's significant because the labor deal runs through 2006. So rather than wrap this issue inside a web of a thousand other issues, this one now stands alone and can be dealt with alone. Which is a good thing for everybody.
WILL PLAYERS NAMED IN THE BALCO HEARINGS BE TESTED MORE THAN OTHERS?
For now? No.
The agreement does allow players in a "probable-cause" group to be tested more frequently than the masses. But baseball doesn't have the right to take any action based on leaked grand-jury testimony that appeared in a newspaper -- even one as reputable as the San Francisco Chronicle.
What happens down the road, though, when the BALCO trial begins this spring and includes testimony by -- and about -- players? That's a fascinating question.
"If there's testimony in an open court," said Rob Manfred, who negotiated this deal for MLB, "that could be basis [for probable-cause testing]."
HOW CAN PLAYERS BE SURE TESTING IS COMPLETELY RANDOM?
According to Manfred, every player will be assigned a number by a computer. The computer will then generate testing dates and testing frequency for each number. So just because a player may have what some people believe is a suspicious "build," that can't factor into how often he gets tested -- assuming he doesn't test positive.
"The computer does not know who is built how," Manfred said. "It's just a number to the computer."
WHY WEREN'T AMPHETAMINES BANNED?
The simple answer is: It was discussed, but left on the table. A six-person Health Policy Advisory Committee (made up of two management officials, two union officials, one doctor and one attorney) will continue to study that issue, Manfred said.
But the real truth is: Baseball wasn't ready to take on The Greenie Problem yet. Despite Victor Conte's profound concern, there has been no great public pressure on this front -- because the public hasn't associated amphetamines with "cheating" the way it has with steroids. And unlike steroids, there was no player mandate to the union to take action on stimulants.
"The purpose of this negotiation was to deal specifically with the steroid and the muscle-enhancing issues," union head Don Fehr said. "And that is what we did."
WAS HUMAN GROWTH HORMONE BANNED?
Theoretically, yes. But realistically, no.
While HGH was added to the list of illegal substances, don't expect anyone to be suspended for using it anytime soon -- because both sides admit there is no test for it yet. A blood test is being developed, but this agreement allows only urine testing.
Manfred said that when a "validated urine test is available, we will use that test." But for now, Human Growth Hormone still falls into the category of undetectable substances -- even though it's technically banned.
CAN OTHER SUBSTANCES BE ADDED BETWEEN NOW AND 2008?
Yes. That can happen two ways: 1) If the government places a substance on its list of illegal steroids, it's automatically added to the baseball list; 2) Other performance-enhancing substances can be added by the Health Policy Advisory Committee.
But the truth is, there's no way to ban everything. As you're reading this, someone is undoubtedly sitting in a lab somewhere, trying to design a drug that can't be detected. And that's the biggest loophole: There's no way to test for a drug if no one knows it exists.
That, however, is a problem that doesn't just face baseball. It faces all sports. The significance of this policy is that it gives baseball a program similar to the other pro sports. And we couldn't have made that statement last week.
THE AGREEMENT STIPULATES PUNISHMENTS FOR THE FIRST FOUR POSITIVE TESTS. WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THAT?
If a player tests positive more than four times, his fate will be determined by the commissioner. At the moment, there's no lifetime ban formally written into the agreement. But it isn't hard to envision Selig imposing one on a player dopey enough to test positive five times.
THE OLD AGREEMENT GAVE THE COMMISSIONER THE AUTHORITY TO FINE A PLAYER INSTEAD OF SUSPEND HIM. HAS THAT CHANGED?
Apparently not. Because the new agreement hasn't been put into writing yet, that isn't official. But Manfred conceded that the language probably will remain the same.
Which leaves open the question of whether baseball (or Selig) would really have the courage to suspend a popular player -- particularly because, if a player is fined instead of suspended, he wouldn't be named.
But Manfred contended the agreement was worded that way simply because it "lets you deal with unforeseen circumstances." He does not envision those circumstances ever causing a player to dodge a suspension, barring something unforeseen.
"Can I think of a circumstance where a player who had a positive test result would not [receive] discipline?" he said. "No, I can't."
DOES THE NEW POLICY BAN CREATINE?
No. Creatine remains a legal, over-the-counter supplement sold in drug stores and health-food stores. And scientifically, Manfred said, it has never been classified as a steroid precursor.
"It has never been demonstrated to have performance-enhancing effects," Manfred said. "It is not regulated by the federal government as a steroid [precursor], and, therefore, is not covered by our agreement. It is a nutritional supplement more akin to a food."
DOES THE POLICY BAN COCAINE OR MARIJUANA?
They were already covered. Baseball doesn't test for cocaine or marijuana. But if a player is convicted of possessing those, or other, recreational drugs, he immediately is placed in a drug-counseling program. And future convictions (a la Steve Howe) can result in suspensions.
What's amazing, in some ways, is that one positive steroid test actually carries a more serious penalty than a cocaine-possession conviction. One positive steroid test leads to an immediate suspension. It takes two cocaine convictions to get suspended.
WHICH PLAYED A BIGGER ROLE -- THE PRESIDENT, CONGRESS OR BALCO?
Well, let's just say it was no accident that in Selig's opening remarks Thursday, he personally thanked the president "for bringing national attention to this issue."
Selig also thanked Congress, for that matter. So obviously, political pressure was one of many factors that converged to create the sense of urgency that led to this deal.
What, exactly, did President Bush do? Mostly, he helped shape public opinion on steroids by raising the issue in last year's State of the Union address, and in several other settings since. But he also hammered on this problem "in a number of public and private ways," Manfred said, and urged baseball to "move ahead on this topic."
An even more pressing reason for baseball to act now, though, was Congress' threat to deal with the issue by passing legislation.
"But most of the senators and congressmen I've talked to," said Giants COO Larry Baer, "said, 'Do it yourself, guys. Don't make us do it.' "
Not surprisingly, no one has been willing to admit publicly that the names and timing of the BALCO scandal played a direct role in the timing of this deal. But realistically, BALCO created so much public outcry and shined such a large spotlight on the problem, it clearly played a major indirect role, at the very least.
"It would be na´ve," Baer admitted, "to say that external forces didn't have some role on both sides."
IF THE OLYMPICS COULD SUSPEND FIRST-TIME VIOLATORS FOR TWO YEARS, WHY DIDN'T BASEBALL?
Two different worlds. Those pole vaulters and shot putters don't have a union to represent them. But left fielders and shortstops are represented by the most powerful union on the planet.
Sure, you can argue these penalties should have been tougher. But this wasn't a deal negotiated in a fantasy world. It was negotiated in the real world. And in the real world, it's still a huge step. A $5 million player who gets suspended for 10 days would cost himself more than a quarter-million dollars. But that's not the half of it.
The worst part of testing positive would be getting that label Steroid User stamped on your forehead. That's a scarlet letter that these players would have to wear for the rest of their lives. If you don't believe their reputations will be tainted forever, just ask Jason Giambi -- if you can find him.
For a high-profile player, that means not just a life sentence of boos and insults. It means having everything he ever accomplished thoroughly discredited. And you sure don't want to be a utility infielder who tests positive. You'd be looking at playing the rest of your career in Korea.
So you can't evaluate this deal without remembering there are two levels of penalties -- formal and informal. There's a price to be paid to baseball -- and a price to be paid in the real world.
Nobody wants to pay that real-world price. And that's the true significance of this agreement: Now that players will be named on the first offense, every punishment is the equivalent of life without parole.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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