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MLB Drug Testing: A Brilliant Bargaining Chip


BOULDER, CO – Why is random drug testing for steroids and other performance-enhancing substances a part of the NBA, NFL, NCAA and Olympics but not major league baseball? And how have team owners used the issue of drug testing – traditionally a privacy issue – as a brilliant bargaining chip to help avert a strike?

The issue is power.

Major league baseball (MLB) players have traditionally held a lot of collective power, often quite a bit more than their counterparts in other professional sports organizations. So while the MLB organization is a Congressionally sanctioned monopoly, players have had enough bargaining power in the past to keep requirements like random drug testing from becoming part of their employment contracts.

Said freelance sports writer Mike Celizic: “The players are already taking in half of baseball’s total gross of about $3.55 billion. Out of the other half, teams have to pay stadium rents and travel costs, support a half dozen or more minor league teams, maintain scouting departments, pay debt service, buy insurance, and [pay for] all the other costs – of which there is almost no end – [to run] a franchise.”

With a great deal of money and power, major league baseball players like Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco were able to keep their use of performance-enhancing steroids private. Thus with power came privacy.

Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs give players that take them an unfair advantage over “clean” players, and without drug testing, a disincentive is created for players not to take drugs. Team owners leveraged the fact that even the idolized star player Mark McGwire admitted to using androstenedione (an over-the-counter muscle-building supplement) during his record-breaking 70-home run season with the St. Louis Cardinals.

By bringing the issue of steroid use to the forefront of baseball fans and government regulators, team owners were able to shift the balance of power away from the players. Players – facing a tarnished image, increased public scrutiny and the threat of federal regulation – finally dropped their opposition to drug testing late last week.

According to team owners’ attorney Rob Manfred, the drug-testing proposal is “very significant. It is the kind of proposal that will put us very easily on the path to a very timely agreement.” Like movie stars and rock musicians, professional baseball players are often in the public spotlight. To many fans, major league baseball players are still the heroes who have the talent to play America’s favorite pastime. Fans watch their every action.

Mundane tasks like going to the grocery store or visiting a movie theater become newsworthy events, especially if a celebrity has a scrape with law enforcement. Because of the scrutiny placed upon them by the public, celebrities often crave privacy and anonymity and use their powerful positions and large sums of money to screen themselves from the watchful eye of the public.

Lord Acton once wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” With an imbalance of power, players were able to make sure that drug testing didn’t occur, but team owners realized that the players’ power was based on public perception and image and used drug testing as an issue that wrested power away from the players.

So for major league baseball players, the slogan “just say no” no longer refers to “no drug testing”. It means that players must now play by the no-drug rules adopted by nearly every other sports organization.

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