Now that Commissioner Selig has thrown the book at Alex Rodriguez, it is past time for sports media to stop giving a free pass to the man who is most responsible for having allowed the steroid problem to fester for as long as it did -- the commissioner himself.
Having presided over the so-called steroid era that virtually all fans, sports media and Selig himself claim has severely damaged the game's history, Commissioner Selig ought to bear ultimate responsibility for that era.
At a minimum, Bud Selig should be barred from the Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame voters have already set a precedent -- if you are tainted by steroids, you can expect to be blocked from Cooperstown (even when there is really no evidence at all connecting you to PEDs, as is true for Jeff Bagwell). Beginning with Mark McGwire's first failed bid, in 2007, many Hall of Fame voters have made clear that suspected steroid use is disqualifying, even concerning players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose status as all-time greats is not in serious dispute. Selig, of course, was not a user. But the case that he was, for several years, an enabler, even if a passive one, is strong.
It is true that baseball has banned, since 1991, the use of illegal or illegally obtained drugs, including steroids (a policy that came into being under Selig's predecessor, Fay Vincent, and whose ouster Selig helped engineer the following year).
But that ban also extended to marijuana and other recreational drugs and did not ban what we now call performance-enhancing drugs that were legal at the time, including androstenedione, or "andro," a bottle of which was famously spotted in McGwire's locker during the great homerun chase of 1998 (though it had been banned by the International Olympic Committee in 1997). Commissioner Selig re-iterated more or less the same policy in a 1997 memo. But this was a ban with no teeth, since there was no testing for any PEDs.
Baseball executives from that era have acknowledged that there was almost no reason to take the policy seriously, since it was essentially unenforceable until 2004. On the other hand, the larger sense in which these players can be said to have cheated -- by undermining the history and integrity of the game -- is far more significant, at least to the overwhelming majority of baseball fans. After all, fans wouldn't care whether McGwire or Bonds smoked pot, though that would violate the policy then in force in exactly the same way that illegal steroid use did.
On those grounds, shouldn't the man who presided over that now-disgraced era and cheated the game and its history also be denied Hall of Fame entry?
Bud Selig and his supporters have issued two principle defenses. Neither one stands up to scrutiny.
The first is that he didn't understand what was happening when it was happening.
Selig as, on many occasions, issued varying degrees of denial about what he did or didn't know during the heart of the homerun derby era of baseball beginning in the mid-1990s.
A few years ago, Dave Zirin quoted former Cleveland Indians' trainer Brent Starr:
"Here's the thing that really bothers me," Starr said in 2007. "They sit there, meaning the commissioners office, Bud Selig and that group... They sit there and say, 'Well, now that we know that this happened were going to do something about it.' I have notes from the Winter Meetings where the owners group and the players association sat in meetings with the team physicians and team trainers. I was there. And team physicians stood up and said, 'Look, we need to do something about this. We've got a problem here if we don't do something about it. That was in 1988." (My emphasis.)
Starr's comments make a mockery of the comments in 2005 that Selig made to Gorden Edes, then of the Boston Globe:
''Billy Beane said it best to me," said Selig, who saw the Athletics general manager the day after testifying before a Congressional panel in March. ''He said, 'I played here, I scouted here, I was an assistant general manager, I never saw any of it [steroid use].' I got that from every camp.
''So this idea that this (sic) sanctimonious, 'Well, he should have known and they should have known,' well OK, maybe that's so. Then that means you guys [media] should have known. But there was only a sum total of 11 articles from 1987 to '98 or '99 that even mentioned it. I'm not being critical of you guys. I was there with you."
"We all know there's steroid use, and it's definitely become more prevalent," Padres General Manager Randy Smith said. "The ballplayers all know the dangers of it. We preach it every year."
Selig also told Nightengale at the time:
"If baseball has a problem," Selig says, "I must say candidly that we were not aware of it. It certainly hasn't been talked about much. But should we concern ourselves as an industry? I don't know, maybe it's time to bring it up again."
An FBI agent warned MLB's chief of security Kevin Hallinan, in 1994, that the bureau was pursuing numerous investigations into illegal sales of steroids involving major league players. In 2005, when that report surfaced publicly, MLB denied that Hallinan ever knew the FBI agent who made the claim, Greg Stejskal. Then it was forced to backtrack, admitting that Stejksal might have contacted them.
As far back as 1988, long-time Washington Post writer Tom Boswell started warning about the prevalence of steroids in baseball and described Jose Canseco at the time as a "conspicuous" user. Boston Red Sox fans apparently serenaded Canseco that October with chants of "ster-oids, ster-oids."
So, depending on when you ask him, Bud Selig says he didn't know about the problem in 1995 or 1998 or whenever, even though Tom Boswell, Boston Red Sox fans, numerous GMs, trainers, FBI investigators and others apparently did prior to that time.
There is simply no way that the man presiding over a multibillion dollar business whose public image is absolutely central to the well-being of that business would not have the means at his disposal to acquire detailed information about a rampant and potentially very damaging practice in his sport.
Now, if Selig really didn't know, he is guilty of stupefying neglect and incompetence. If he did know, he is arguably guilty of having cheated the integrity and history of the game more profoundly than any individual player ever could.
The second principle defense of Selig is that he tried to get the players' union to impose a tougher policy, but that his hands were tied by union intransigence. It is true that the union was adamantly opposed to testing prior to the 2002 collective bargaining agreement. A long ESPN magazine assessment of the steroids era from a few years back proffered a version of the Selig's-hands-were-tied defense and suggested that Selig became concerned about steroid use around the time of the historic McGwire-Sosa homerun chase, tried to educate himself for a number of years on the issue and then was prepared to act by 2001-2002.
But it's simply a whitewash of Selig's own culpability to argue that he didn't try harder because he had to yield to the players' intransigence on this issue.
Recall that, in 1994, then-interim Commissioner Selig was willing to deploy the nuclear option in an attempt to change the financial structure of the game. Because of the collective bargaining impasse over the game's finances, Selig preferred to allow the season to shut down, including cancellation of the World Series in the face of the players' strike, rather than to declare himself powerless to resist the union's preferences concerning the economics of the game. It's hard to argue that there is a greater disaster to befall a sports league than a cancellation of its signature event, particularly given the long and storied history of the World Series and its central place in the lore of the sport.
In other words, when Selig cared enough about an issue, he was willing to go to war over it. And he cared deeply about making as much money as possible for the clubs, especially the smaller revenue clubs like his own Milwaukee Brewers, who stood to benefit the most from the economic changes Selig was insisting upon.
Also recall that in the two years leading up to the 2002 collective bargaining agreement, the commish issued a steady stream of increasingly hysterical, dire and dishonest assertions about the future of the game, including stark misrepresentations of his franchises operating profits and losses. He threatened to shutter up to four franchises because they supposedly couldn't compete (one of those franchises, the Minnesota Twins, was owned at the time by the richest owner in baseball and would manage to begin winning a string of division titles in 2002). So, he was not above a scorched-earth approach to negotiating with the players when what was at stake was ensuring maximum owner profits, particularly for franchises whose owners chose to invest little in their teams (in 2001, the final year of the old agreement, which was supposedly oh so unfair to "small market" teams, Bud's old franchise, the Brewers, recorded the highest profits of any team in baseball).
This is not to say that getting a testing regime in place prior to 2002 would have been easy. (and MLB did implement minor league drug testing, which was not subject to collective bargaining in 2001). But there is no real evidence that Selig made a serious effort to change the PED culture of baseball until the celebratory hoopla over all the record-breaking was already dying down. Selig's willingness to go extreme lengths to secure collective bargaining provisions that actually mattered to him is a matter of historical record, however short some folks' memories are. And the bottom line is that Selig was obviously more concerned with the financial upside of the brand of baseball being played at that time then why it was happening.
Congressional pressure and other factors eventually changed the drug use and testing landscape in Major League Baseball. Bud Selig has been talking tough for several years now. And it's clear that his desire to bring the hammer down on Alex Rodriguez isn't only or even primarily about justice and the integrity baseball. This is about Selig's legacy -- how he can be remembered as a crusader for a clean game, while doing his utmost to make people forget about his profound failures during the first decade of his commissionership. He's aided in this by many in the sports media who were themselves complicit in all of this. The cheap moralizing that is the stock and trade of typical sports coverage is especially eye-roll worthy when it comes to steroids. When the McGwire-Sosa homerun race was the biggest story in sports, a lonely reporter Steve Wilstein was battered by colleagues in the media and others for daring to report on the presence of Andro in McGwire's locker. Now, of course, nearly everyone claims to be a champion of the game's integrity. Those who were covering the game then and said nothing (with their own half-baked rationalizations) have their own motives for pretending that their own hands were tied or that they didn't know during the height of the steroid era. But for the most powerful man in the sport to make such arguments is particularly hard to stomach.
Some players, A-Rod included, are now paying a significant price in terms of their historical legacy in the game.
Bud should as well.
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