Cheating: Get Serious

Even if you’re not a fan of baseball, you’ve probably been in the loop on the news story that developed over the last few months regarding players linked to a now-closed clinic in Florida.  The firm, Biogenesis, reportedly supplied at least a dozen Major League baseball players with performance enhancing drugs for several years.  This clinic and its activities were discovered by MLB officials, and they somehow convinced the owner of the defunct outfit to cooperate with their investigation.  The situation reached its climax today, with the MLB handing out suspensions to 13 players linked to the Biogenesis scandal.  Notable among the players suspended were Nelson Cruz , outfielder for my hometown Texas Rangers, and Alex Rodriguez, third baseman for the New York Yankees.

Of the 13 players, only Rodriguez received a suspension longer than 50 games: his suspension for the remainder of the season and all of next season amounts to 211 games, a stiff sentence based on not only his use of PEDs but the fact that he recruited other players into Biogenesis and later impeded the investigation of MLB officials.  Of all of those suspended, only Rodriguez is the only one who did not accept the suspension and has chosen to appeal (which allows him to continue playing while the appeal plays out).

I’ve had some interesting discussions with peers during the last few weeks as the Biogenesis story snowballed.  Among the talking points:

  • Steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), and other manner of PEDs should simply be allowed because they can’t catch everyone.
  • PEDs don’t help you hit a fastball, or catch a 95mph line drive coming at you.  You already have to be insanely talented to make it to that level.
  • Players who are caught using HGH should simply be banned.  One and done.
  • What is or is not considered a PED?  Maybe the issue is simply definition.

Opinions vary widely about the impact of PEDs on the sport.  I can sympathize with the arguments that PEDs should be allowed (although I’m still still strongly opposed to their legalized use, simply for the reason that kids should not look forward to the day when they can take PEDs).

That’s not really what I want to write about, however.   The issue is not about what should be or should not be illegal or the merits of legalization or further tightening of the rules.  Though we’re discussing the topic of baseball and the use of PEDs, the real issue I want to address is cheating.  What we’re really talking about is grown men going out of their way repeatedly and with extensive care and planning to cheat the system.  These players knew the rules and broke them, with the intent of illicitly gaining an edge on the competition.

Minimal penalties

What upsets me most about this situation is the slap on the wrist given to folks – and their associated organizations – who are found to have cheated.   The typical punishment for a first-time offense is a suspension of 50 games without pay.  On the second offense, the suspension is doubled to 100 games.  On the third offense, the player can be banned forever from the baseball.

Now I don’t want to sneeze at being out of work without pay for 50 games (a couple of months) – that would present a hardship for most working people.  However, there are two things to consider with that.  First of all, Major League Baseball players aren’t most working people.  With a minimum salary of $490,000 per year, even the lowest paid professional ballplayer makes about 10x what the average household brings in.  Second, let’s face it – if the average worker was caught in a cheating scandal at work, chances are good that he or she would be fired (and possibly sued or criminally prosecuted) for such behavior.  In the real world, cheating will often end your career for good.

Proposed change

While 50 games is a significant amount of time to sit out, I don’t believe the punishment fits the crime.  Again, we’re not talking about being late to some games or badmouthing a ref.  We’re talking about cheating.  I believe any punishment for cheating – even the first offense – should be swift and harsh.  It should be enough that the player will remember – painfully – for the duration of their career.  I believe the punishment for a first offense of confirmed or admitted cheating should result in a minimum without-pay suspension of one full year – 162 games (or more, if postseason play is involved).  A subsequent offense, which indicates a complete disregard for the rules, should result in an automatic lifetime ban, including the vacation of any records held by the player and elimination from consideration for any post-career awards.  Finally, the banned player’s team should have the option to nullify that player’s contract.

How about the owners?

Ultimately, the decision to cheat or not to cheat remains with the player.  However, the team and its ownership should have a stake in making sure their players are abiding by the rules.  As such, team owners should be held to account alongside the players, not unlike the way a financial institution would be held liable if one of their employees was stealing from customers.  I suggest that ownership should be fined an amount at least equal to the suspended player’s salary during the suspension.  Further – and this would be the real disincentive – is that the team should be ineligible for postseason play in any year in which a player began a suspension.  I don’t know a lot about the business side of baseball, but I do know one thing: team ownership speaks but one language, and that is the language of dead presidents.  By taking away from cheating teams the possibility of postseason play – a cash cow for professional sports – you’d make ownership take seriously the issue of cheating.  Further, with the threat of losing any postseason bid in the event of a suspension, the peer pressure from fellow players could help to keep honest any players on the verge of going astray.

Close to home

I realize the punishment I’m talking about is harsh.  And yes, if these punishments had been in place today, my own Texas Rangers would be losing one of their best offensive players for a full year, as well as losing the possibility of any playoff run.  But the fact remains that Nelson Cruz is a cheater, and because of his dishonesty, at least a portion of the success this team has had is unjustly earned.  Personally, I’d rather our team be mediocre and honest than successful and dirty.

Conclusion

Cheating is an ugly business.  The rest of the world sifts out cheaters, punishing them through social stigma, litigation, and even criminal prosecution.  In sports, and in particular in the MLB, cheating is handled with kid gloves.  There are lots of folks who are mad as hell about this now, and are tired of seeing this nonsense in what should be an honorable game.  I’m hopeful that Major League Baseball will do the right thing and get real about handling cheats.

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