CREDIT: Associated Press
Major League Baseball announced today that it is suspending Alex Rodriguez through the end of the 2014 season for using performance enhancing drugs. The suspension, a total of 211 regular season games plus any 2013 postseason games if the New York Yankees qualify, comes as a result of Rodriguez’s involvement in the larger Biogenesis drug scandal, and is harsher than outlined in baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement because baseball says Rodriguez lied about his ties to the anti-aging clinic and obscured evidence during MLB’s investigation.
The suspension is less than than lifetime ban commissioner Bud Selig was originally seeking, but Rodriguez will appeal it in front of an independent arbitrator. Rodriguez will be allowed to play through the appeals process because Selig relied largely on the Joint Drug Agreement, not the collective bargaining agreement, to justify the suspension, though he did invoke pieces of the CBA as well. Rodriguez is expected to join the Yankees in Chicago tonight. Relying solely on the collective bargaining agreement’s “best interests of baseball” clause, as Selig once planned to do, would have almost certainly invited a legal fight from Rodriguez and probably a labor fight from the Players Association too, risking an immediate halt to the 20 years of labor peace that is a hallmark of Selig’s legacy that he cares a tremendous amount about. Allowing A-Rod to appeal removes most of the possibility of a protracted fight that could have been much worse for baseball than allowing him to return to the game will be.
The early leaks about a lifetime ban and the use of the CBA to justify it were possibly trial balloons, attempts to both bring A-Rod to the negotiating table to work out an appeals-free suspension like Ryan Braun’s and to test how the media, fans, players, and Rodriguez himself would react to choosing a different process than the one the union and league worked so hard to craft in the bargaining process.
There’s an argument that Rodriguez made this worse by maintaining his innocence and promising to fight anything Selig did even in the face of pressure from fans, the media, and his fellow players, but just as Selig wanted a lengthy suspension to win a PR battle, A-Rod has his motivations too, not least of which is the remainder of the $275 million contract he signed with the Yankees in 2007. The results of all the trial balloon-floating weren’t necessarily pretty for either side, with everyone questioning Rodriguez and plenty of media openly wondering why and how Selig expected to get away with throwing the entire process out the window.
So where do we go now? First, to the appeals process, which will start in front of an independent arbitrator later this month and, according to Players Association executive director Michael Weiner, likely won’t be over before the season ends. Some baseball insiders, though, believe that after the appeals process concludes, Selig’s choice to rely mostly on the Drug Agreement could ultimately work to his advantage — an immediate appeal will further turn Rodriguez into a villain while giving the commissioner legroom to make the argument that baseball’s drug policies are too flawed to sufficiently punish offenders. That would allow Selig to ask the union for sweeping changes, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney, who outlined what he thinks Selig should do last week:
But what this would allow Selig to do is go to the union, with all the evidence against Braun and Rodriguez in hand, and say the following:
Fellas, look: I know you’re not happy with Braun’s suspension, and damn it, neither am I. We wanted more. We want to go after the cheaters with more ammunition. We want to be more aggressive. We think Alex Rodriguez cheated all of you; we think he lied to all of you; we think he tried to make a mockery of our drug-testing system. He thumbed his nose at it and exploited the loopholes.
Let’s close those loopholes. Let’s make this better. Let’s talk about lifetime bans for egregious second or even first offenders, rather than three-strikes-and-you’re-out. Let’s eliminate the incentive to cheat: Let’s talk about voiding contracts under certain circumstances.
You guys don’t like players like Braun and Rodriguez, and neither do we. Let’s go after them.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Selig eventually take that tack, since he wants to keep pushing on PEDs during what is supposedly his final year in office to bolster his legacy on drugs and because he knows he has a large number of players, fans, and media on his side.
The Players Association, though, would almost surely be wary of that approach should he take it. Selig, as FanGraphs’ Wendy Thurm noted, has shown an almost comical disregard for collective bargaining and existing agreements during the A-Rod saga, particularly by threatening to toss aside the Drug Agreement in favor of the CBA. Even the milder Rodriguez suspension would seem to partially ignore that agreement, which outlines specific sanctions for drug offenses: players are supposed to face 50-game suspensions for their first offense, 100-game suspensions for the second, and a lifetime ban for the third. A 211-game suspension doesn’t exist — Weiner called it “way out of line” this afternoon — and for all his supposed transgressions, Rodriguez is still technically a first-time offender (the obvious caveat here is that baseball will likely argue in front of an arbitrator that his actions and its evidence constitutes more than a first-time offense).
But that’s what A-Rod will receive, at least unless (and maybe until) an arbitrator overturns or reduces it. The Players Association didn’t hesitate to defend Rodriguez this afternoon. “The accepted suspensions announced today are consistent with the punishments set forth in the Joint Drug Agreement, and were arrived at only after hours of intense negotiations between the bargaining parties, the players and their representatives,” Weiner said in a statement. “For the player appealing, Alex Rodriguez, we agree with his decision to fight his suspension. We believe that the Commissioner has not acted appropriately under the Basic Agreement. Mr. Rodriguez knows that the Union, consistent with its history, will defend his rights vigorously.”
Defending or looking weak regarding users may not draw the union support from fans or even some of its players, but it also isn’t going to forget how willingly Selig set aside the current agreement this time around. If it acquiesces to demands to strengthen penalties and add tests and maybe even void contracts, as Olney suggested, what would stop Selig or another commissioner from tossing the new agreement out to punish players again in the future? Judging by Weiner’s past comments and his post-suspension statement, the players certainly want to get drugs out of the game. But they also (correctly) want baseball and its commissioner to respect due process rights and the agreements they’ve bargained.
So both baseball and, more importantly, its players need to proceed carefully here. Reducing use of performance enhancers and the specter of cheating that comes along with it is important, but how it happens is important too. Rodriguez’s alleged use may prove that baseball’s current testing system isn’t working, but evidence suggests that focusing on testing as the major deterrent isn’t the most effective solution. A recent study asserted that current drug testing policies in sports exist “largely for show” and are “in place largely for perception,” so more tests and harsher penalties may help Selig and MLB win a PR victory, but they might not be the answer if either side actually wants to make progress on drugs. And it isn’t in the players’ best interest to allow MLB to make up punishments as it goes along, tacking on extra games as an “asshole tax” or because no one likes the guy it is suspending. Because if the agreements are ultimately meaningless, so too is the ability to bargain for them in the first place.
This post was updated at 3:30 p.m. to include actual details of Alex Rodriguez’s suspension and the statement from Michael Weiner.