NEW YORK: After a 40-month investigation by former Sen. George Mitchell into Major League Baseball's steroid problem, his 400-plus-page report released last week has created a major reputation crisis for the league. The report laid blame on nearly everyone, including the league, past commissioners, players, team officials, and the players association.
"Everyone involved in baseball over the past two decades shares to some extent the responsibility for the steroids era," Mitchell said in a summation of his report. The list named 86 current and past players as being linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
This isn't the first serious black eye for baseball. The sport has previously dealt with cocaine and gambling issues, as well as season-shortening strikes. But this is the first situation of an endemic issue with performance-enhancing drugs, from multiple players on various teams, which could truly threaten the game. The additional surfeit of records broken by people on the list will further put the game's legacy in doubt.
An ESPN Sports Nation poll found that, at press time, 81% of 56,000 respondents said they cared if athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs, but only 23% said the report would make them less likely to watch baseball next year.
MLB declined to comment on the details of its communications efforts. However, it followed up the release of the report with its own press conference featuring Commissioner Bud Selig.
"His report is a call to action," Selig told the media. "And I will act."
A source knowledgeable with the PR efforts of individual teams expects clubs with players named in the report to put together their own communications plans and talking points to deal with media inquires.
Jeff Graubard, president of the Graubard Group, said disputing the report's findings is the last thing the league and the players association want to do. Graubard Group represented the league's marketing arm, MLB Properties, during the 1990s.
"Everyone will have to take [his or her] share of responsibility with this," he said. "The players association needs to admit [its] share of the blame for this whole culture and it would be ludicrous to dispute the findings. The last thing they want to seem now is resistant to the whole thing."
The players association was also scheduled to hold a press conference later Thursday evening.
In order to get back in the good graces of fans, Gene Grabowski, SVP at Levick Strategic Communications, said Selig must acknowledge the steroid issue is a bigger problem than the league expected and say it will take a course of action to start rectifying the problem. He said those steps need not be laid out immediately though.
"This can't be a knee-jerk response," Grabowski added. "That won't be considered sincere. [Selig's] response has to be considered thoughtful, reflective, and meaningful, otherwise it won't be believed."
Grabowski believes the league has less goodwill with fans than during past scandals because its pursuit of stronger relationships with corporate America has perhaps weakened its relationship with the average fan.
"They lost touch with their fan base so much that when times get tough people are very cynical," he explained. "So now they're going to... just shrug their shoulders and say they knew steroids were rampant and everyone was lying. That's hurtful to baseball."
After years of not agreeing on drug-testing policies, the league and the players association need to present a unified message that focuses on fixing the problem, Graubard said. He added that the league's decision to hold a press conference the same day as the release of the report shows just how serious it is in wanting to minimize the damage.
"It really says something about the importance of PR and how important public perception is," he said. "[The league and players association are] all in this together and are taking extraordinary steps to get it out in the public. What they do from this point is going to be the proof as to how serious they are about this."
However, Bryan Harris, managing partner at Taylor, believes baseball can survive this just as it did past strikes and other scandals.
"It has overcome a lot of challenges before," he said. "Ultimately, the sport is strong enough to make it back into the good graces of those who might have felt the game wasn't what it once was. The game is extremely resilient."