Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Steroids Stain Fehr's Legacy

After more than a quarter century at the helm of the country's most power labor union, Donald Fehr has decided to retire.

During his 26 years as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Fehr, 61, helped to bring players an unprecedented level of financial security, raising the average salary from $289,000 in 1983 to $3.24 million this season.

But for all his success, for all the positives he did for players, Fehr's legacy -- like commissioner Bud Selig's -- will forever be stained by his role in baseball's steroid scandal.

Of course Selig and the owners share and equal amount of blame for this black mark in baseball history. They gained financially in the Steroid Era and for a long time, owners didn't want to know or care if their players were on the juice.

But this is a day to focus on the union and Fehr.

For years, the union was on the wrong side of the debate, arguing that drug testing was an invasion of the players' privacy. It was a wrong decision for baseball and it was horrendous decision for the players.

The primary responsibility of any union is to protect its members. That includes making sure they are compensated adequately, have a strong pension and benefits, have safe conditions in the workplace and are protected from criminal activities.

And by fighting against steroid testing, the union allowed its members' health to be put at risk.

Still, Fehr fought tooth and nail to prevent any form of drug test before agreeing to the now infamous 2003 anonymous survey test and weak program that ensued.

Only public outrage and pressure from Congress was able to get Fehr and the union to accept a legit program.

And even with that strong program finally in place, the reality is that not only is the steroids issue not going away any time soon, Fehr and the union are in an untenable situation because of that anonymous 2003 test.

The fate of that list of 104 players who failed that test is in the hands of a federal judge, who is trying to determine if the government can use it in its perjury case against Barry Bonds or if baseball's collective bargaining agreement prevents that list from becoming public.

Already two names -- Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa -- have been leaked, and surely more will come out slowly.

But it's the revelation about Sosa that illustrates just how bad the situation is for the union.

Last week, The New York Times, citing anonymous sources reported Sosa was indeed on the list, and Congress saw fit to review Sosa's testimony to a House committee on performance-enhancing drugs during which he denied ever using PEDs.

To me, it was at that point that union's stand on not releasing the List of 104 no longer had anything do with keeping its players from being embarrassed. The good of the game isn't even a consideration for the union here.

That's because that list is a smoking gun. If made public, that list would be all the government needs to put some of those players in jail for perjury.

In addition to Sosa, Bonds claims he never knowingly used steroids or failed at test. Gary Sheffield told prosecutors a similar story.

Rafael Palmeiro also was at that Congressional hearing in 2004. Shortly after he was busted for steroids, but claimed to have mistakenly taken what he thought were supplements from a teammate's locker.

Roger Clemens is still denying he ever used PEDs, despite a Congressional investigation.

If any of those players tested positive in 2003 and that list becomes public, well, their freedom will be in short supply and I don't think prosecutors will be inclined to show much leniency.

No, this issue is not going to vanish any time soon, but it's not going to be Fehr's problem any more. The Union's general counsel Michael Weiner is expect to succeed Fehr and it will be Weiner's problem to clean up now.

Fehr will just sail off and avoid the limelight as his once sterling legacy grows tarnished.

A History Lesson
After The New York Times story was published, White Sox first baseman dismissed the story because of its use of anonymous sources.

"If the guy actually didn't do anything, he already has been crucified in
public and that's not fair," Konerko said. "I just don't like when stories come
out and really all it is is a rumor. It's just trying to force someone to come
out and say something. I think it's not very American.

"You would think if you were going to run a story, you would have to
say this is who said this so that person could talk. I guess that's lost

The use of anonymous sources is a tricky for newspapers. Most -- and certainly the Times is among them -- have strict standards when it comes to granting anonymity to a source, often getting confirmation of facts from two or three more sources.

They understand the stakes are high because if they are wrong, people get hurt -- as Konerko correctly points out -- and the paper opens itself to a libel suit. And we have seen cases where papers have been wrong -- they are not infallible.

But here's the thing Konerko doesn't understand. The use of anonymous sources goes back decades and is an accepted and legitimate tool in American journalism. To say that it's use is "not very American" reveals Konerko to be rather uneducated in history.

I suggest he read "All The President's Men" -- or if reading is beyond Konerko's capabilities, he can watch the movie (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford were tremendous). Clearly Konerko has never heard of Watergate and he needs to learn how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down Richard Nixon's presidency using anonymous sources.

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