MLB needs to assure the players that the A-Rod case does not set a new precedent

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Everyone is squawking about MLB officials going on “60 Minutes” last night. I don’t think it’s the biggest thing in the world. It’s unseemly for MLB to basically take a victory lap like that, but I doubt they would have if A-Rod and his lawyers hadn’t been pulling those kinds of stunts themselves. Which, of course, followed many MLB leaks and things going back months. No one is covered with glory when it comes to the discretion angle of this nearly year-long affair.

That said, it’s possible to view MLB’s willingness to make a public case like this as an extension of their willingness to break with the automatic penalties of the Joint Drug Agreement that I described on Saturday. Dispensing with the clearly-delineated penalties of the JDA and grabbing a Commissioner’s discretion to suspend for hundreds of games in a first offense. Making P.R. cases in a drug testing program that is supposed to be automatic, zero-tolerance and, above all, confidential. Indeed, the entire character of Major League Baseball’s drug program has been changed as a result of the Biogenesis investigation and suspensions.

And as a result of that, it is incumbent upon Major League Baseball to tell the players and, to the extent they care, the fans, whether it intends to continue on in this fashion or if, alternatively, this was an odd, and unlikely-to-be-repeated case. And yes, this matters.

As I said on Saturday, Bud Selig, with the approval of baseball’s arbitrator, has created a new power to punish from whole cloth. When a player is suspected of drug use but there is no positive test — which, of course, represents a failure of the testing program — Major League Baseball now has the power to use discretion and to apply any penalty it wants, without reference to the 50-100-lifetime ban. It can justify it by claiming a lack of candor (justifying 15 extra games for Ryan Braun) or obstruction, justifying 112 additional games for Alex Rodriguez. The evidence of that lack of candor or obstruction is not for public consumption. It can publicize its investigation and punishment with impunity.

And, most importantly of all, unlike any other power to punish players in existence, Major League Baseball has claimed these powers without the assent of the Players Union.

While it is unlikely that some player is going to draw the ire in the same way Ryan Braun and A-Rod did, it is now possible for baseball to go after someone in the same way if it so chooses. If it hears a rumor of a player’s drug use, it can question the player and decide, on its own, whether that player is being truthful. It can file lawsuits against his friends and associates to coerce them into turning on him. It can buy stolen property and give six-figure sums to shady people as long as they cooperate with them. In the end, it can suspend the player for hundreds of games — maybe 200 or more — and only see the suspension reduced if the player has the means to mount a months-long legal challenge.

Perhaps it is unlikely that Major League Baseball would ever do this again. Perhaps A-Rod and Ryan Braun represent unique cases. But, tell me, when was the last time any governmental, quasi-governmental or administrative body willingly relinquished power for which it made a bold grab?

While the unpopularity of appearing to side with Alex Rodriguez or appearing to be anything less than tough on PEDs mitigates against most players and members of the media from criticizing the manner in which Major League Baseball obtained its discipline against A-Rod, the fact is, Bud Selig’s actions and assumption of new power in the drug game is troubling and potentially damaging. It could lead to abuses by Major League Baseball. More likely, it could lead to mistrust between the players and the league and could inject itself into labor negotiations in the future once people realize exactly what just happened here and why it’s so troublesome.

Major League Baseball could head that off, of course. After the dust from Saturday’s ruling settles, the league could issue a statement explaining — with reference to facts and perhaps the unsealing of the arbitrator’s ruling, not rhetoric like we’ve seen for months — exactly why A-Rod’s suspension was justified. It could assert where the power to issue a 211-game suspension (and then a 162-game suspension) flows from for a first offense.  It could explain why — if it truly believes so anyway — this isn’t a power grab by Commissioner Selig and why this decision does not create precedent beyond the highly-unique circumstances of Alex Rodriguez’s case.

I’m not holding my breath for that. Because, again, those who claim unprecedented power rarely voluntarily relinquish it and even more rarely adequately justify it. And they are especially loathe to do either if no one bothers to complain.

CC Sabathia won’t visit the White House if the Yankees win the World Series

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Over the past couple of days the subject of athlete activism, always present to some degree in American sports, but recently revived by Colin Kaepernick and a few other football players in the form of silent protests during the National Anthem, exploded into a headline dominating news story. Lighting the fuse: President Trump directly inserting himself into the controversy.

He did so during a speech on Friday night and during a series of tweets Saturday and continuing into this morning in which he urged NFL owners to “fire” or suspend players who do not stand for the national anthem. He also attempted to disinvite the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from their traditional White House visit because of their star player Stephen Curry’s public opposition to him, though Curry had already said he wouldn’t go.

As Ashley wrote last night, the silent anthem protests have now come to baseball, with A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell becoming the fist player to kneel during the National Anthem. Before that, at least one baseball executive, Orioles Vice President John P. Angelos, came out strongly on the side of players and against Trump. Joe Maddon said some less-than-enlightened words on the matter. Major League Baseball issued a statement on the matter. It was, not surprisingly, somewhat empty, taking something of a both-sides-have-good-points tack. It’s understandable, I suppose. I suspect Major League Baseball and its owners would prefer to not have to comment on this at all. The league does not do this sort of controversy well.

Ballplayers, however, will likely continue to speak up. The latest: Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who was asked yesterday whether he would visit the White House if the playoff-bound Yankees won the World Series. From the Daily News:

“Never. I just don’t believe in anything that is Trump. So there wouldn’t be any reason for me to go at all. I just think it’s stupid. I just think it’s dumb that he’s addressing players and stuff that he shouldn’t be. But it is what it is, and that’s the country we live in these days . . . I’m proud of the way that everybody has Steph’s back and just athletes in general these days, the way everybody has been stepping up has been great.”

Baseball players, as we’ve noted many times over the years, tend to be a more conservative bunch than football or basketball players. There are a lot more white players and a lot more players from southern, suburban and exurban areas. A significant number of racial-ethnic minority players were not born in the United States, so U.S. politics may not necessarily preoccupy them the way it may players from the United States. As such, political protest like we’ve seen in the NFL and NBA was never going to start in baseball in 2017.

But that does not mean that it was not going to come to baseball. Contrary to what so many fans seem to think, sports do not exist inside some bubble into which the real world does not intrude. Athletes are citizens just like you and me with social, political and personal concerns just like you and me. And, at the moment, a government official is demanding that they lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views and the manner in which they are expressed. I suspect most of us would get upset by that if it happened to us. Certainly a lot of people I know on the conservative side of the political expression worried about government overreach and freedom of speech. At least before January of this year.

So I am not at all surprised that baseball players like Sabathia are beginning to speak out. He will not be the last. Others will join him. Others, as is their right, will push back and say they disagree with him. If and when people feel inspired to tell them to “stick to sports,” or “stay in their lane,” perhaps they should ask why the President of the United States decided not to do so himself. And ask why he thinks it’s appropriate for athletes to lose their jobs for their political views and why private entities like the NFL should be patriotic institutions rather than businesses which put on sporting events.

 

Bruce Maxwell first MLB player to kneel during National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.