Thursday 23rd November 2017,
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Is Congress' Role in Affairs of Major League Baseball Justified?

By Victor Castro

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On February 7th, after months of arbitration, Alex Rodriguez dropped his lawsuit against Major League Baseball for being dealt a 212-game suspension. Although the suspension was appealed and has since been reduced to 162 games, it represents the longest suspension ever given for a Performance Enhancing Drug-related (PED) infraction and dwarfs the 50-game suspension typically given for a first-time offender. A suspension of this length would never have been considered, let alone given, just a few short years ago.

In 2004, following the high-profile release of former all-star Jose Conseco’s Juiced, an exposé alleging rampant use of PEDs in Major League Baseball, the U.S. Congress held a series of official hearings. In the course of these hearings, they questioned many of Major League Baseball’s former and current stars about their experience with and knowledge of PED use. Shortly thereafter on November 15, 2005, under extreme Congressional pressure, senior Major League Baseball officials instituted the revamped suspension policy that is still in place. This meant more than tripling the existing penalties for first and second time offenses and instituting a lifetime ban for third time offenders. These harsher penalties have been issued to several all-stars in recent years including Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and most recently, Alex Rodriguez.

The legacy of Congress’ involvement in Major League Baseball is clear. The effects of their involvement still plague baseball today, evidenced by the extreme suspensions (which inexplicably fall well outside the guidelines for punishment) handed down by Major League Baseball recently. Given the clarity of this relationship, for better or worse, it is worth understanding why Congress never should’ve gotten involved some 10 years ago. It is worth examining, from a constitutional perspective, what power Congress holds that warranted its presence. One of the responsibilities of Congress as the legislative body of the United States, as defined in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, is to regulate interstate commerce. Technically, this includes professional sports leagues. The use of various PEDs by professional players represents an illegal advantage of one party over another in an otherwise fair commercial exchange. Eradicating these sorts of advantages can be interpreted as a valid goal for Congress in this situation. The means by which that can be achieved, however, may be a point of contention.

There may have also been safety-related concerns that prompted Congress to take action. A 2004 Center for Disease Control study discovered that the number of teenagers using steroids had tripled in recent years to nearly 500,000. To many, this represented a PED epidemic that had started to leak into athletics on a youth level. These concerns were also enhanced following the death of two teenaged athletes who had committed suicide after abusing anabolic steroids. Given the general concern for public health among the constituencies of Congress, it seems clear that there may have been some pressure to act.

It can also be assumed that holding Congressional hearings is no small expense. With the current average salary of a United States Congressperson topping $174,000, the man-hours spent by Congressmenand women and their staff in PED-relatedhearings since 2004 would be worth millions.

Therefore, it is worth asking what the effect would be on the American people,even if Congress were able to make a dentin the number of major leaguers using PEDs. One could speculate that perhaps fewer young people would use steroids and a handful of professional baseball players – players who happen to have an average annual salary of $3.39 million – would face fairer competition. However, for the average person, the only change might be that their favorite player will hit fewer home runs. So, while it is important to recognize that Congress may not, and perhaps should not, be doing a cost-benefit analysis for every topic they discuss, for this issue, the ends seem to fall short of justifying the means.

Even disregarding these tax-dollar effectiveness concerns, the question remains: who really cares? ABC News polls show that while 61% of people believed more should be done to prevent steroid use, only 30% thought the federal government should be involved in enforcing the rules that are set. This is far from a ringing endorsement from the American people and illustrates the distaste for Congress’ activity.

Another consideration should be whether or not Congress’ efforts would create tangible outcomes in baseball. Are even the most avid fans’ habits affected by the use (or potentially reduced use) of PEDs? An NPR study showed that nearly 54% of people felt their thinking about baseball following allegations about PED use was unaffected. Not even Major League Baseball itself stands to lose much of their fan base or attendance as a result of PED use.

While Congress’ role in the legislation of Major League Baseball may be justified in the legal sense, its legitimacy fails on several counts. From a practical perspective, the time and money that has been poured into Congressional examination of baseball is massively disproportional to the potential benefits that can be attained from their efforts. Congress’ actions have also been found wanting in the court of public opinion where less than one-third of the public endorses their involvement. Perhaps Major League Baseball should have been left to their own devices to monitor for and punish PED use among its players. Maybe the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the same force that recently brought down Lance Armstrong and stripped him of his 7 Tour-de-France titles, should have been, and perhaps should be, more involved. One conclusion is certain: Congress should never have gotten in the way of America’s favorite pastime.

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