A Bad Idea for Baseball

Following the revelation that Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi used steroids, some government officials began demanding that major league baseball adopt a stricter steroid policy. While much ink has been devoted to the impact of steroids on the game of baseball, too little attention has been paid to whether or not the government should have any role in determining the league's steroid policy.

Senator John McCain is leading the call for a stricter steroid policy for baseball saying, "Major league baseball players and owners should meet immediately to enact the standards that apply to the minor leagues, and if they don't, I will have to introduce legislation that says professional sports will have minimum standards for testing." He's threatened that, "I'll give them until January, and then I'll introduce legislation."

McCain argues the government has the legal authority to intervene based on the interstate commerce clause in the constitution, though the Supreme Court has sometimes ruled otherwise. Regardless of legal standing, the question of whether or not the government should have a role needs to be examined.

Major league baseball is a business – a private enterprise that sells its product to baseball's fans – the consumers. A privately owned organization should be able to adopt any rules it chooses free from government interference. The current league rules are the outcome of a bargaining process between the players' union and the owners. Owners' profits and players' salaries are both ultimately affected by fan demand. If baseball adopts rules that fans dislike, it will have a negative impact on revenue. The profit motive gives baseball the incentive it needs to adopt the type of steroid policy that fans desire.

Is there fan outrage that demands a new steroid policy? Senator McCain thinks so. He said, "I would hope that the players would recognize it's in their interest to act so that they regain some legitimacy. There are many fans disturbed."

A recent ESPN.com poll found that 93 percent of fans felt steroid use "taints the game" but that same poll gives us reason to believe that the recent steroid stories haven't changed fans' opinions.

More than 80 percent of the fans polled said that the recent revelations about Bonds didn't change their opinion of him because they "always thought he used steroids" and only 10 percent of fans were "surprised" or "shocked" by Giambi's testimony. If the recent BALCO revelations have not changed fan opinion, then there can't be too much fan demand for a new steroid policy, particularly since major league baseball set an all time attendance record last season.

While fan demand may not have changed, many fans have long felt the game would be better off without steroids. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig favors a stronger anti-drug policy. A 2002 USA Today poll found that 78 percent of major league players said they were in favor of serious testing. If fans don't like steroids, the commissioner wants a tougher policy and many players are in favor of serious testing, then what is the hold up? The government.

The players' association is afraid players who fail a steroid test will be liable to government prosecution. The fears are well founded. The 2003 tests coded each specimen and player with a number so individuals would remain anonymous unless the two lists were combined. This year federal agents executed search warrants to seize both the coded list of players and the specimens. Given these federal actions the players union is rightly concerned that any testing by major league baseball might lead to the government violating players' civil rights.

Baseball is a business that responds to consumer demands. Senator McCain should have no more influence over what policies the organization adopts than any other fan. The senator is free to attend games or not. There should be no special role for government in determining what type of policy gets adopted. The government's only role should be to commit to not using major league players' private test results for public prosecution.

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