“The bottom line is (MLB) wants these guys out of the game…In (A-Rod’s) case, 150 games would sufficiently accomplish that.”
Recently, during a visit with my family, I talked at length with my Dad about baseball. We threw ideas about the Brewers back and forth, and vented frustrations about the misdirections and luck of the Brewers’ 2013 campaign. At one point, discussing salaries, my Dad questioned the need for ballplayers to have a union, arguing that ballplayers should be able to negotiate contracts with their employers, just like people like you and me typically arrange employment terms without the helping hand of Labor.
In fact, players’ interests are defined well-beyond those of salary negotiations. I went over a brief, incomplete history of baseball’s union, noting that at the time Marvin Miller organized players, there were numerous pension and workplace safety issues to be tackled — not to mention issues of pay, contractual security, and other issues (including organizational punishments of ballplayers, as well as broader goals such as establishing collective bargaining agreements and independent arbitration processes). It’s important to note that the genius of Miller’s attacks against Organized Baseball — beyond his undying tenacity and ability to exploit a fractured group of eclectic figureheads and businessmen that comprised baseball’s ownership in the 1960s — was his ability to use a synergy of labor mechanisms (such as arbitration) to instill free-market principles against ownership interests.
Miller’s most underrated realization was that baseball served entertainment interests and that MLB was a business, and that realization played against many owners’ assumptions that they were guardians of a “pasttime” or keepers of a great civic duty. Certainly, years later some players mourned that Miller turned a game into a job, but by that time those complaints were drowned out by the hum of ever-increasing salaries and revenue. Free agency, Miller’s most contentious victory for the players, entrenched players’ salaries and teams’ reserve rights into an arbitrated structure based around service time and performance. Against owners’ best and loudest protests to the contrary, everyone made bank like bandits. In this regard, the victories of the early baseball labor movement proved that “players’ collective interests” extended far beyond their salaries.
One of the contentious claims of our current Major League Baseball administration is that of “Labor Peace.” For decades following the 1960s organization of baseball’s labor interests, there was a clear line between players and ownership. While the initial battle lines were clear, bitter, and indisputable, over time both sides fought continuously over increasingly smaller details within their collectively bargained agreements. Baseball’s labor disputes were particularly difficult due to increasing splits between large-market and small-market owners, not to mention the expansion of baseball’s millionaire class (which ranged from Catfish Hunter to Claudell Washington within a handful of seasons). As battles between fractured owners increased, solidarity among well-compensated players decreased, and labor battles entering the 1990s arguably contained as much vitriol as those of the 1960s. Even if the battles were not as grand as arbitration, the reserve clause, free agency, and the pension, they were fiercely contested by myriad interested parties.
If Commissioner Bud Selig‘s legacy is a series of unprecedented, peacefully negotiated Collective Bargaining Agareements, that legacy was paved by dissent among ownership and player ranks alike. Baseball with labor peace is baseball without labor consciousness, and as players became more padded by individual gains and balanced arbitration and reserve systems, ownership issues such as revenue sharing and salary caps (such as the luxury tax) shifted ownership issues away from the “pure” labor conflicts of yore. If “labor peace” is claimed by MLB as a victory, it is a pyrrhic victory, insofar as the players’ solidarity is lost (leaving them defenseless to fight procedural flaws executed by ownership and the Commissioner’s office) and ownership is fractured (since a small group of owners will be ever-ready to enact further revenue sharing and salary cap reform to compete in an explosive TV landscape). “Labor Peace” as a media slogan hides the cracks within both sides, and even where players and owners refuse to admit solidarity due to their own individual interests, their sides are still opposed in issues that are crucial to baseball. For this reason, it would be a mistake to associate the MLB’s Testing Era successes with the peace between both parties, since those cracks between (and within) both sides are deepening within the issue of PEDs, testing, and investigations.
It might be an unpopular view in such a lucrative entertainment industry, but labor issues will always find ownership and players opposed to one another. (It is a mistake in nearly any endeavor to assume that ownership and employment interests align; where they do align, the motives of both parties must be analyzed and dissected). Due to the interests of ownership, and those of the players, the two sources competing for the game’s revenue will always have motives to be in conflict. Even during times of “peace,” such as negotiations and bargaining from 1994-to-present, the basic arrangement of the conflict does not change. There might be circumstantial factors that mute the basic labor conflict — such as revenue agreements among owners — and other struggles of power within both ranks (such as clean players vs. cheaters, small markets vs. big markets, or even the draft vs. free agency). In these circumstances, MLB and the Players Association have negotiated agreements that increasingly sacrifice the future ranks of the union in favor of free agency (the combination of draft slotting and budgets, and the revised compensation system, effectively sell amateurs down the river in favor of more eight or nine figure free agency deals). While it’s true that selling out amateur talent and failing to support your teammates’ procedural rights are two different issues in terms of content, in terms of motivation, the forces that lend the MLBPA’s base to favor free agency above all else motivate players to protect their own interests; only the cost remains in question.
Ironically, these diverse and shifting players interests, coupled with the open statements of “clean” players against cheating, are expanding and weakening union resolve just as ownership battles are being resolved with lucrative TV deals, increased revenue sharing, and enforcement of the luxury tax. In light of such agreements among disparate ownership groups, open dissent among players allow those players to argue in favor of ownership interests without requiring the owners to say a single word. Therefore, a perceived lack of conflict between players and owners exists arguably because the fractures between players are more damaging between owners, and as the players fail one another they strengthen the ability of ownership to pursue expanded powers in PED investigations.
While players that argue in favor of expanded testing and greater suspensions appeal to the moral sensibilities of many fans and owners, those statements damage the potential resolve players have to respond to invasive MLB investigations that potentially violate the CBA or Joint Drug Agreement. Numerous players are speaking out in favor of expanded PED testing, as well as expanding suspensions — recently, MLB.com noted that dozens of players allegedly support a year-long suspension for first time violators of the JDA. While those claims — and other basic statements imploring players to “play the right way” — sound great, they undermine potential defenses for players associated with the Biogenesis Investigation.
This might sound like an overly procedural concern for a ballplayer, but speaking in favor of ownership interests helps to advance the validity of those interests at a time when ownership is using testimony of suspicious individuals, arguably compromising or coercing those individuals through claims of indemnification from a lawsuit, as well as flouting the idea of a lifetime ban for Ryan Braun or Alex Rodriguez. If ownership interests are advancing the idea of a lifetime ban (for a first suspension!), the idea of players clamoring for a year-long suspension doesn’t look so bad, and a 100-game suspension seems like a relative cakewalk. The goal for ownership is to coerce players into the harshest penalties possible, not only in order to further validate their strict testing system to fans, but also show that Organized Baseball can and will expand their cases beyond tests and into the murky area of probable cause. (R.I.P Testing Era, 2004-2013, enter Punishment Era…)
Heightened Suspensions and MLBPA
Responding to continuous developments in the MLB’s lawsuit against Biogenesis, as well as continuously trumped up and conflicting claims (including warnings about premature announcements) about suspensions, the MLB Players Association issued a statement about the lack of confidentiality in this scandal:
The leaking of confidential information to members of the media interferes with the thoroughness and credibility of the Biogenesis investigation. These repeated leaks threaten to harm the integrity of the Joint Drug Agreement and call into question the required level of confidentiality needed to operate a successful prevention program. It would be unfortunate if anyone prejudged the results of the investigation based on unsubstantiated leaks that are a clear violation of the Joint Drug Agreement
While this statement is a welcome upgrade from the MLBPA’s previous notes during the scandal, it certainly exhibits a more critical voice, its message continues to uphold the investigation on the whole, as well as the JDA. It’s not time for a labor war, yet, and the MLBPA’s muted statements reflect the MLBPA’s difficult position among its players. Writing for the New Yorker, Ian Crouch succinctly summarized the Union’s current divisions and subsequent dilemma:
But, by this point, the union is in a tough spot: on the one hand, it must protect the rights of the accused players. On the other, it is also tasked with protecting the wider rights of all its members against any cheaters in their midst. The players, as eager as everyone else to finally clean up the game and move forward on even ground, agreed to the current testing regime, after all. It remains to be seen how much appetite their union has for protecting a few players who may have been seeking an unfair advantage in this late stage of the steroid era.
At best, MLBPA can uphold its players’ confidentiality, a basic procedural element of their agreements with the MLB that nevertheless fail to reach the substance of players that demand others “play the right way.”
Clean Baseball and MLB’s Brand
The substance of some players’ demands for a clean game arguably undermines the collective interests of all players against intrusive, circumstantial, or unjust investigations by the MLB — especially investigations that give the aura of circumventing central procedural elements of the collectively bargained agreements. When the substance of some players’ claims shift away from statements about the types of investigations MLB should make, to the way that players should comport themselves in terms of honest competition, ownership claims to enforce the interest of “clean” baseball are strengthened beyond the interests of players.
It’s interesting to note that some players’ statements about playing clean and resting easy (or having nothing to hide), rather than criticizing investigations or raising questions about their procedural rights, mimic the claims of many American citizens that, even in the face of surveillance or other types of legal investigations, if you’ve done nothing truly wrong you have nothing to fear. Here, the players supporting testing, punishment, and playing the right way miss the implications of the types of investigations MLB is conducting. (The other potential argument being: if investigations and evidence for certain claims flout the procedures and rights of those involved, the substance of those practices outweighs the strength of any clear conscience about “having done nothing truly wrong”). The players move to the intriguing position of aligning with some fans’ desires for clean baseball above all else, while counteracting other fans’ basic desires to watch the best possible players on the field (we’ll leave aside the crucial question of whether fans believe they’ve watched “clean” baseball for decades, and if so, why they believe that).
Here we can address a common fan question, why is the MLB going after some of its brightest stars without positive tests? For, the other side of fan expectations about the game is that owners have the interest to fielding the best team possible. In the shifting Punishment Era, one must investigate the costs of those best possible teams. Are owners willing to support the procedures of a testing system, rather than the mechanisms of a shady investigative system, in order to field competitive ballclubs?
A recent argument I’ve been toying with concerns “MLB Branding.” If division among the players results in open expressions by some players in favor of increased punishments, while other players loudly argue for “playing the game the right way,” the owners are empowered with an opportunity to move their own interests beyond that of individual players, teams, or outcomes, to previously abstract goals: “clean baseball,” “honest competition,” “strict punishments,” and “strict testing.” Instead of simply worrying about a “competitive” ballclub, owners now have the investigative apparatus and fractured players to field “clean” ballclubs.
If the goal of the MLB is to enact the strongest testing policy in sports, and the players’ interests are divided in any way, MLB ownership reaches a stronger position in their ability to suspend, punish, test, or investigate players to whatever means necessary. Dragging parties into court, using indemnification as a bargaining chip, intimidating others with investigators or security forces, obtaining documents by any means necessary (even by purchasing them) are all legitimized if the players fail to unify under the substance of their collectively bargained agreements (and the fans keep showing up, and buying merchandise, and the “clean” players continue to speak out in favor of these practices).
MLB has a real interest in ensuring that the best talent possible plays on the field, but if the interests of players divide, and some fans continue to applaud the league (and everyone buys tickets anyway), MLB’s real interest can shift from “ensuring that the best talent is on the field” to “ensuring that the cleanest talent is on the field.” For decades, there was never a need to distinguish between those interests, because everyone was in on the ruse, or everyone was quiet about it, or everyone respected a code of confidentiality (to a certain point), or everyone implicitly understood that, hey, boys will be boys (and baseball players will cheat). Everyone simply enjoyed baseball.
A shift in the MLB brand could set the stage for the type of baseball future generations demand. Perhaps fans will flock to baseball not simply for home runs or pitching duels or sacrifice bunts or 100 MPH readings on the radar guns or even sausage races. Rather, a successful MLB brand could mean fans that flock to the game to watch clean baseball. No PEDs, no excuses. No, “this is the history of a cheating sport,” or, “the effect of PEDs on baseball activities is unknown, inconsequential, or immeasurable;” just, “clean competition.” Granted, this is a pipe dream of sorts, because fans will inevitably be concerned with other areas of the game — how many games are their teams winning? How do they hit with RISP?
Here’s where the threat of imbalance, dishonesty, and cheating enter the equation, through sheer competition itself. Fans won’t care if their championship clubs are “dirty;” if A-Rod is suspended or banned for life, will that invalidate the Championship won by the New York Yankees during a 2009 campaign that relied on Rodriguez’s production? Of course not; the same wasn’t expected to happen with the San Francisco Giants and Melky Cabrera either (hat tip to a commenter from DoU for this argument). In this regard, the validity of MLB’s quest for clean baseball can be challenged, simply due to their current inability to strip teams of playoff revenue when players are caught cheating, or stripping teams of championships, division titles, etc. Since these are largely ownership interests (especially playoff revenue), no one should be surprised that MLB’s investigation doesn’t look in that direction.
From these measures, we can see the labor conflict arise once more: MLB will not strip owners of revenue, or teams with cheaters of championships or other titles. This places expanded investigative measures and expanded punishments directly on the players, rather than baseball as a whole. This should be a point of contention, players should find some ability to unify and demand equally harsh punishments if the rigor of baseball’s investigations (and their scope) changes).
The pro-ownership argument to support Braun follows the inherent imbalance (or dishonesty) of competition, and it follows the interests of the league to have their very best players on the field. Both of these elements of competition are crucial to the success of MLB in order to carry the legacy of exceptional players in MLB’s history, as well as its history of allowing players to compete regardless of their standing with MLB. By suggesting that fans would rather see clean players at any cost — and aggressively pursuing that agenda through legal and collectively bargained means, the MLB is suggesting that its audience, players, and ownership ranks will prefer a clean game to an excellent game.
This might seem like a strange distinction to make, but in this case we actually know who the MLB is hunting, thanks to their recklessness with the JDA’s confidentiality policy. We know that without positive tests, MLB is attacking certain players and attempting to remove them from baseball, despite their status as stars in the game. In this case, we can actually respond to MLB, as fans; we can say, “we prefer baseball with Ryan Braun,” or we prefer baseball where the players’ interests (via collectively bargained agreements) are upheld according to those agreements. The strongest motivation MLB has to support Braun is to show players, owners, and fans that the instruments of the testing era were not a ruse.
Unfortunately, the players may not be primed for such solidarity in the face of the MLB’s new approach to punishments for PEDs. While one might be tempted to argue that the players are finally playing the game morally or exuding strong character, their lack of a concerted response to MLB’s current investigation is unfortunate because the success of this investigation will move MLB beyond the testing era. What the MLB gains through using the courts and a gang of investigators to enforce its PEDs policy, the players lose in the form of their procedural rights. These interests may not be uniting players now, but should this investigation succeed for the MLB, the mechanisms of their response to the Biogenesis scandal will eventually be items for deliberation the next time CBA and JDA bargaining occurs.
We can respond to such a shift by supporting Braun this time around, in the hopes that fan voices and wallets might recover some of the fight lost by the current players’ disparate interests. Supporting Braun, at this point, goes beyond the very matter of any PED use, and cuts to the issue of the MLB’s procedures for punishment. If we want to follow a sport without drawn out investigation scandals, if we want to follow a sport where punishment boundaries are clearly outlined, if we want to follow a sport where the players are more important than abstract ideals about “clean competition,” we need to use this case to speak. Are we paying to watch “clean baseball” at all costs, or are we paying to watch victories?
The last few years show that baseball can be competitive and enjoyable, even during the testing era. If we want to continue watching Testing Era baseball, we should support Braun and voice our disagreement with MLB’s current approach to punishments.
News sources and quotes cited with links within text.
Some arguments developing during debates at Badger State Sports.