December 12, 2006

George Mitchell Strikes-out on MLB Steroids

George Mitchell has been retained by Commissioner Bud Selig to investigate past steroid-use in Major League Baseball. Selig hired Mitchell in March of this year following the publication of Game of Shadows about Barry Bonds and the proliferation of steroids in the game. On Friday, December 1, Mitchell updated the public on the progress of his investigation, or rather, lack of progress. Ronald Blum reported Mitchell’s statement for the Associate Press, “…Much more work will be necessary. Cooperation has been good from many of those from whom we have sought testimony and documents, but has been less than good from some others. This will not affect the result of the investigation, but it has increased the length of time it will take me to complete the investigation." It has been more than eight months and he still needs more time.

Previously, Mitchell was the Governor of Maine, United States senator from the same state, and U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland where he helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Belfast Peace Agreement. It is quite a resume and certainly he has done some investigation work before. In the Senate, Mitchell had the power of Congressional subpoena and as Special Envoy, the power of U.S. foreign policy sticks-and-carrots.

But Major League Baseball is not the U.S. government and here Mitchell has encountered a new entity, the Major League Baseball players, who he can neither subpoena nor subject to State Department rewards and pressures. It was the players who were using, the players who he is asking, and the players over whom Mitchell has zero power. It makes one wonder just how effective Mitchell might be in this round of peace making.

Mitchell essentially stated on December 1 that the players are not cooperating with his investigation. Mitchell, and his current boss, Commissioner Selig, want the players to talk about past and current steroid use (yes, players are still using which we know as players continue to fail MLB’s drug test) while the players have circled the wagons in a stance of speak-no-evil. Mitchell presented his words so as to suggest disappointment with the players and imply that they somehow should be speaking about who used and when. Mitchell almost suggests that they were the ones acting inappropriately by using drugs and taking advantage of the fans’ and Commissioner’s trust, and therefore it is now time for the players to be purified in the confessional of his investigative committee.

If only baseball’s redemption from the shadow of steroids was so simple! That Mitchell would expect player cooperation is especially strange and unusual in light of the Commissioner’s ongoing silence over the Commissioner’s own long-time silence and inaction, and consequently de facto permission, in allowing the use of steroids in baseball.

Did the Commissioner’s office have a role in the use of steroids in MLB? Yes, the Commissioner’s office did have a very important role in the widespread use of steroids, and the subsequent fallout we have all experienced since the Congressional hearings in March 2005. In talking about the players, Mitchell and Selig paint a picture of past-use in a world that was somehow beyond the knowledge and legislative reach of MLB at 245 Park Avenue. However, it is hard to take Selig seriously as a leader and administrator without asking about his own complicity – and that of MLB Commissioners going back to Bowie Kuhn who took office in 1969 – in the proliferation of performance enhancing drugs in the game.

The House Government Reform Committee held hearings on steroid use in baseball in March 2005. Mark McGwire implicated himself. Raphael Palmeiro swore he had not used which hastened his exit from the Orioles and baseball when he subsequently tested positive later that season. Jose Canseco accused everyone of using. The word was out that the players really had been juicing.

After the hearing, Sports Illustrated printed the lament of a baseball fan on its March 25, 2005 cover, “What am I going to do with this scrapbook full of memories and the stories I used to tell? Another summer full of moments will soon begin, the biggest home run record of all ripe to fall. What will we do, each of us, now that we know?“ Now that we know?! WHAT?! Was Sports Illustrated serious in this romanticized lament? SI should have been given a 15-yard penalty for failing to read its own back-issues.

The cover suggested that we the fans, journalists, and Major League officials had not known. Really?! Did we really have no idea? Did we truly believe that it was the shorter ballpark fences or the balls themselves that were juiced? Did we and Sports Illustrated’s own writers not read earlier front-cover stories on this issue? And notlittle mentions at the end of articles about the East German Olympic swimming team or Bulgarian weight lifters.

There was the January 5, 1987 Sports Illustrated issue chronicling Oklahoma Sooners football player Brian Bosworth’s drug failure and drug use in the NCAA. There was the July 8, 1991 cover featuring retired NFL player Lyle Alzado chronicling his steroid use. There was the April 14, 1997 issue on the cover of which Sports Illustrated warned, “Don’t be fooled: Athletes of all kinds are still using drugs to improve performance – and they’re getting away with it.” This was a full year before McGwire and Sammy Sosa smashed homeruns and surpassed Roger Maris’s single-season homerun record. In March 2005, Sports Illustrated, Selig, and many fans all wanted to blame the players. We did not take one-minute to consider that we ourselves have known all along and that we have been as much complicit in not asking questions and not using our rationalizing brains to draw the most obvious of conclusions.

The players certainly used steroids. We debate the extant to which this was unfair or deceitful. We debate the nature of the message it sends. We debate how we understand baseball statistics and achievements in the shadow of their use. But they used them – and given the nature of the current steroids tests which can only screen for known drugs – some are still using steroids. However, responsibility for the proliferation of their use does not rest on the players alone. The Commissioner of baseball makes the rules – and yes, the Commissioner does so in necessary partnership with the players’ union, the Players Association. But the Commissioner has the duty and obligation to act in the best interests of the game and the Commissioner has the power to shape the rules of the game.

Ostensibly, Selig is eager to examine the past, what we knew and when we knew. If so, then let Selig come clean with the baseball public. Let Selig share with us what was going through his mind as Sosa and McGwire were pumping baseballs out of stadiums in 1998, aside from how great it was that America was finally paying attention to the sport again. Selig has a wonderful opportunity to lead by example. In his December 1 statement, Mitchell lamented that cooperation from former ballplayers “has been less than good from some...” Until Selig steps-up and signals the culpability of his own office, it is difficult to fault the players for following his leadership with silence of their own.


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