Baseball's image at stake as commissioner mulls response to most recent steroid abuse allegations
The mammoth home runs hit in 1998 by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during their highly publicized chase of the single-season record helped salve Major League Baseball's (MLB) black eye from the 1994 strike. The sluggers' quest generated high interest, even from casual fans, and drove people back to stadiums.
Eight years later, homers are all the rage again, but this time they are being smacked from the bat of San Francisco Giant superstar Barry Bonds. And in this case, they might give baseball another black eye.
The issue is steroids, and two books recently have been released detailing the alleged abuse of the substance by some of the sport's biggest stars - most notably Bonds. Mere days before the start of the season, MLB commissioner Bud Selig, according to media reports, was finally set to launch a wide-probing investigation into steroids affect on the game.
If this sounds familiar, it is. In August 1998, a reporter spotted a bottle of androstenedione (andro) in McGwire's locker. The testosterone booster was legal in baseball, but had been banned by the International Olympic Committee, the NCAA, and the NFL. No action was taken against McGwire, and the issue disappeared.
Now, many are waiting to see how Selig handles this situation and whether it, too, disappears or becomes a PR nightmare.
Before the media announcements, Richard Levin, SVP of PR for MLB, said that Selig was exploring his options.
"I think we'll have a decision soon," Levin says. "[Selig] sometimes moves deliberately, but the key is making the right decision."
"[Selig] is in a pretty tough situation," says Peter Land, GM of Edelman's sports and sponsorship practice. "From a PR standpoint, the way you handle a classic crisis communications situation is to move quickly, act decisively, be forthright, and be candid. Doing that pays dividends, and I think that's been a problem for baseball. It tends to be a slow process, and that's unfortunate."
Scott Broberg, VP of Minneapolis agency Fast Horse, argues that it hasn't gotten to the point where fans are turning away.
"No doubt the heat will get turned up as Bonds approaches Hank Aaron's record," Broberg says. "The topic of performance-enhancing drugs can potentially impact Selig's legacy. However, unless Bonds is proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, Selig has little choice but to recognize his feats."
Shaun Powell, sports columnist for Newsday, agrees that Selig has a fine line to walk. "[Selig] is dancing and probably needs to. Bonds hasn't tested positive, nor have the other BALCO players. Baseball would be taken to court if it ever tried to take action against those players, and it would lose."
Land adds that the commissioner can't be decisive without hard evidence. "You're not always allowed to act unilaterally," he explains. "It's probably unfair to criticize Selig because there's the baseball fan inside him that says, 'I'd like to do this.' And then baseball's attorneys are probably telling him, 'Here's what you can and can't do.'"
Broberg says one action Selig can take to end the speculation before it gets worse is to launch an investigation to get the proof he needs to take a clear stance on Bonds - one way or another. "That said, the investigation should not focus only on Bonds, but every player of this era," he says.
No matter which way the saga turns, Land doesn't believe this will become a PR nightmare for baseball. "Baseball's been an amazing case study over the years about bouncing back," he says. "I'm not sure any other professional sport could do what it has done from a brand management perspective. In these situations, the venom or displeasure often tends to be directed at an individual. However, baseball tends to stand the test of time."