Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan argued Thursday that the calls for voiding Braun’s contract are ridiculous, and he’s right. For one, Braun would instantly sign a new contract, because teams would value his services at a discount price. But more than that, as Passan notes, doing so would set a dangerous precedent that the MLB Players Association would not and should not tolerate. And fans and people who care about the players’ ability to have rights and a voice in the system shouldn’t tolerate it either, because owners would love the power to use any excuse to void contracts they willingly entered into any time they’d like. Not only is it not going to happen — it can’t happen without a grisly labor and legal fight no one wants — it shouldn’t happen.
And that’s precisely why the talk about a lifetime ban for Alex Rodriguez, maybe the sport’s biggest villain and certainly the biggest fish left in the Biogenesis case, is so ridiculous. CBS New York reported Wednesday that a lifetime ban is precisely what baseball is seeking, and I don’t doubt the possibility that someone in baseball leaked that sort of news. But if that’s the case, it’s a negotiating position, not a serious solution. Baseball wants A-Rod to come to the table the way Braun did, and floating the idea that they’re exploring a lifetime ban is one way to try to accomplish that.
But it almost certainly won’t happen, and even the most ardent Rodriguez haters shouldn’t want it to. Banning Rodriguez for life would require voiding his contract as well, something A-Rod haters, Yankee fans, and the Yankees themselves would love to see. The Yankees have openly floated the idea of voiding A-Rod’s contract and they probably would if they could. But they almost certainly can’t. Baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement gives teams very little room to discipline players for drug use; in most circumstances, only the commissioner’s office can do that. And while Rodriguez’s contract has a morals clause, it says nothing about steroid use, so taking such an action would invite a labor fight baseball and the Yankees almost surely don’t want and probably couldn’t win even if they did.
Banning Rodriguez for life, then, would be a massive bailout of the Yankees, who still owe him $114 million over the next five years. But it’d also be an incredible subversion of baseball’s collective bargaining system. The Joint Drug Agreement is a collectively bargained process, and while it provides that players can be banned for life, it allows it only after their third positive steroid test. Rodriguez hasn’t yet failed his first, and even if baseball goes big by arguing that participation in the Biogenesis mess counts as two drug offenses, they’d still be one short of the Big Kahuna unless they have more evidence and dirt on A-Rod than we think they do. More likely is that because the Biogenesis case represents what the Agreement calls non-analytical positives — that is, evidence of drug use without a positive test — most of the suspensions related to it will end up being negotiated, which means the only road to a lifetime ban that wouldn’t subvert the collectively bargained process would be to get Rodriguez to agree to it the way Braun agreed to his suspension, and that’s not going to happen.
So again, if baseball tries to ban Rodriguez for life — a practice that occurred primarily before the MLBPA was formed and was usually only upheld when players were accused of associating with gamblers or conspiring to fix games — it would likely be inviting another fight it probably can’t win and that would risk bringing 20 years of labor peace to a crushing end. Baseball players might not like A-Rod — some may even be arguing that he and Braun should have their contracts voided — but I doubt they’d enjoy giving up most of their contract and bargaining rights to owners, either. And while the union might not love the idea of defending Rodriguez, it also can’t allow MLB to make up the rules for punishing drug users as it goes along if it wants to keep its credibility as a union. There is a process, one the union made considerable efforts to craft. It can’t just toss it out the window now because an unpopular player is the one facing punishment.
Alex Rodriguez is, by most accounts, a reprehensible guy (though I still consider these two incidents bigger marks against his baseball character than his alleged drug use), but this isn’t about Alex Rodriguez. It’s about the rights baseball players have when they enter into contracts and when they collectively bargain with owners who’d prefer they didn’t have that right at all. Those are rights that make baseball a better game, and if we can’t stand up for the rights of Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, we ought to at least stand up for the players who could lose valuable protections under the punishments so many are proposing.