Determined to put an end to the doping era, last week Major League Baseball suspended Alex Rodriguez and 12 other players for their connection to Biogenesis, a shuttered anti-aging clinic that allegedly supplied them with banned performance-enhancing drugs.
The punishments, which saw suspensions accepted by all-stars and players from teams with World Series aspirations, was the most sweeping since the 1919 Black Sox game-fixing scandal that rocked the sport.
They came just eight days after the Baseball Hall of Fame failed to enshrine any living candidates, in spite of legends including Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom have been linked to doping, being eligible.
Further, the punishments were widely supported by current players. Many have grown tired and resentful of competing in a sport in which outstanding performances routinely draw suspicion from the media and public, as well as in an atmosphere where the presumption of innocence, at least within the court of public opinion, has evaporated.
While baseball touts its drug-testing program as the most stringent in pro sports, the Biogenesis situation suggests it is in fact deeply flawed. Interestingly, none of the dozen players serving suspensions tested positive. They were exposed not by MLB's “best-in-class” drug testing, but by an alternative newspaper in Miami and a disgruntled Biogenesis employee who turned incriminating records over to it. Without that employee, it's likely that this scandal wouldn't have been uncovered, which leads one to wonder how many other similar operations are in play, how many players continue to cheat, and will it take to end the scourge and ultimately rebuild the reputation of the players and the sport itself?
A good first step was actually seen in the immediate wake of last week's announcement, when several of the suspended players addressed the media and expressed remorse for their actions. To really move forward, however, players need to take ownership of their misdeeds, demonstrate contrition, and express humility for having done it. Then they should make a commitment through their words and actions to avoid this behavior in the future.
However, as long as professional sports leaders punish only the individual and not their team, in the manner of forfeiture of games or postseason bans such as the NCAA hands down, the use of banned substances, like PEDs, is likely to continue.
In signs pointing to another positive step, it appears MLB intends to open discussions with the players union after the season to toughen penalties for cheaters. Some feel that the current system should be replaced by a “zero tolerance” approach, resulting in a lifetime ban and voiding of contracts, while others have begun calling for the adoption of a model more akin to that used by the Olympic Games, which levies a two-year ban for a first offense and lifetime ban for a second.
In the near term, A-Rod's refusal to accept his suspension is an unfortunate worst-case scenario for MLB. He serves as a constant, highly visible reminder for the next two months, and potentially the postseason, of the Biogenesis scandal, which MLB had hoped would fade from focus as pennant race storylines take the spotlight.
While Rodriguez is clearly protecting his millions by protesting his punishment, it's worth noting he has been damaged goods on Madison Avenue for quite some time. Frankly, the rest of the Biogenesis 13 weren't any national marketer's choice to build a campaign around. At this point, we are more likely to see A-Rod set up at a card table next to Pete Rose selling autographs for $25 a pop than featured in a national advertising campaign.
So as this tumultuous season struggles through the dog days of summer, the dark cloud of steroids, largely personified by the third baseman toiling in the Bronx, continues to hover. Pessimists are proclaiming that the sport has never been, nor likely ever will be, as pure as we thought it to be in the days of our youth.
If fans really want to send a message to MLB, rather than boo A-Rod for the next two months, they should stay home and tune out. As long as ratings continue to rise, turnstiles keep spinning at record rates, and sponsor support is robust, the game's economic health will mask its image issues and the crisis will be unresolved.
Shawn McBride is an SVP and director of client service for Ketchum Sports & Entertainment.