Howard Bryant has a fantastic article over at ESPN about the players union’s response to the Biogenesis scandal. In it he details how and why this PED scandal, unlike those which came before, represented the final straw for most players. Player who used to uniformly rally around those accused of cheating but who do so no longer. Who, in fact, are among the most critical voices of their fellow players.
Bryant wonders whether this shift is a harbinger of a greater fracturing of the union:
By publicly advocating unprecedented levels of punishments for violators now (players such as Schumaker and Detroit’s Max Scherzer publicly called for lifetime bans for first-time offenders), today’s players are essentially repudiating those attitudes so prevalent as recently as six years ago and during the height of the steroid era. But as a consequence, they might be exposing themselves to fragmentations that could shift the balance of power in baseball’s labor relationship in the favor of ownership. Biogenesis has inflamed the MLBPA’s membership. But in pushing for increased sanctions for PED use, players might be weakening their union’s longstanding position as the strongest negotiating body in the history of professional team sports.
It’s an interesting question, but I don’t think the union’s overall strength and solidarity is at risk.
Jonah Keri and I touched on this a bit on his podcast the other day, but my view is that there is a pretty clear delineation between PED issues and general pocketbook issues with which the union is normally concerned. There’s no reason why, on the one hand, the union can’t agree to stiffer PED penalties and begin to turn heavily on those among them who still cheat while still providing a unified front if the owners decided to, say, try to roll back the gains players have made in terms of salary, free agency and the like. There just isn’t some link between those issues and drug issues that necessitates a fissure on the part of the union in both instances.
Indeed, one could argue that the players’ solidarity regarding PED testing is a sign of health, not weakness of the union. I’m put in mind of the United Auto Workers union in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. They became strong through solidarity and will. Then they spent decades getting everything they wanted. Then they, depending on who you talk to, either overreached tremendously and/or got stuck in a mindset where management’s views were never taken seriously and compromise, when it became necessary, wasn’t considered. Or, at the very least, was considered too late. Obviously there was a lot more going on with that and no sane view of the U.S. auto industry should absolve management completely, but it’s hard to walk away from that thinking that better outcomes wouldn’t have been realized if the union were more pragmatic. Solidarity is a huge part of a union’s power, but there comes a point where solidarity for its own sake is a weakness, not a strength.
I see the MLBPA as being pragmatic here. Their defense of A-Rod in the face of disproportionate punishment shows that they’re not throwing players under the bus, but the shifting views Bryant describes are setting the stage for them to agree to changes in the Joint Drug Agreement that pleases its membership. Still: despite all the tough talk now, I think it’s highly unlikely that they’d surrender their rights in a wholesale fashion in any changes to the JDA. When asked if Ryan Braun should be squashed, it’s an understandable emotional reaction to say “hell yeah!” When they sit down at a table and hypothetical changes are proposed that could squash any player, they may not be so quick to agree.
But no matter what happens with baseball’s drug rules, if Bud Selig tied to exploit this seeming softening of the union to, say, eliminate guaranteed contracts altogether or something, he would face fierce opposition. It’d be like 1994 all over again. Why? Because the union isn’t dumb and is fully capable of treating two different issues in two different ways. To the extent the owners and Selig misperceive this and attempt to exploit what they believe to be the union’s weakness, they will be in for a very rude awakening.