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Those thirsty for penance and repercussions and vengeance want the Milwaukee Brewers to void Ryan Braun's contract. Hell, rip up all the big-money deals for performance-enhancing-drug users, the thinking goes. The money was promised to players who willfully engaged in fraud. Empty their pockets and send 'em to the gallows.
This is wrong. It is wrong, and it is excessive, and it is oversimplification and extrapolation at its worst. It never should happen. As long as the Major League Baseball Players Association remains a progressive union – the sort that doesn't forget its core values even as its views on PEDs shift to better represent its members' – it won't.
No matter how hard the league pursues players who used PEDs, at least it remains respectful of its contract structure. This is not the NFL, where a contract is a one-year promise gussied up to look like something it isn't: fair. Baseball contracts, especially the long-term ones like Braun's five-year, $105 million extension that doesn't even kick in until 2016, are marriages. There are good ones and bad ones. Some are better for the team and others the player. Quite often, the fraudulence goes against the players.
Should they be able to void a contract when an owner lures them with promises he then breaks? Should every Miami Marlins player be able to wriggle out of his deal because Jeffrey Loria and David Samson are swindlers whose morally reprehensible fleecing of taxpayers into buying them a stadium did not lead to their guarantee of spending more money on payroll? Should a player who signed for below-market value to stay in a city he likes only to find himself traded get a contractual do-over?
There are levels of treachery in sports, and PED use finds itself high on the list. This is understandable after the public-relations assault that turned steroids into baseball's version of crack. Never mind that treatments deemed legal by the sport – blood-spinning, Orthokine and others – have similar effects to PEDs.
The demonization, unfortunately, expresses itself in disproportionate fashion.
Ryan Braun's story isn't about drug use. It's about how an egomaniacal jerk couldn't accept responsibility for his own decisions that went against the rules, tried to drive a monster truck over anybody who got in the way and ended up folding beneath the enormity of his own deception.
If the Brewers hadn't given him that extension, would anybody be calling for its invalidation? Of course not, because the first contract Braun signed, an eight-year, $45 million deal, was one of the team-friendliest deals in baseball history, an absolute mugging for the club. The Brewers locked Braun in after his first season, watched him develop into an MVP and were going to reap the benefits of their foresight until 2015.
"In some circumstances, where the team has a player who's very valuable, more valuable than his contract, the club is not going to want to discipline him," MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner said Wednesday. "In other cases, when the club perceives the contract justifies more than discipline, it would undermine the integrity of the program."
The program is of great importance to the union as well as MLB. Both sides spent countless hours negotiating, arguing and tweaking, hair graying and teeth grinding, to agree on a drug plan that would suit both sides. Considering the union's long-held ethos that bodily fluids belong in a body or a toilet, the fact that the MLBPA acceded not only to urine testing for PEDs but blood testing for HGH shows not a weakening but an evolution that players do crave an even playing field. It might be naïve. It might be wrong. But it is their choice and theirs alone, even as a hefty part of their bloc finds itself in the crosshairs of the Biogenesis investigation.
For those players, there is a punishment already. The league and union agreed on this punishment. A positive test is under the 50/100/lifetime structure. A non-analytical positive – all of the Biogenesis cases – is up for negotiation. No matter what the punishment, it ends there. Teams cannot do anything beyond it. Neither can players.
Whether this is sufficient deterrent – more than 20 players going to the same drug dealer would suggest no – is not the point here. There may not be such a thing as a deterrent. The money is so big. The glory is so overwhelming. The lifestyle is so entrancing. Take a pill. Plunge a needle. Um. Yeah. Please.
It's why expecting owners to play some sort of a role in this is unrealistic. Players are grown men making grown-man choices in the privacy of their homes. No longer is the average PED user some muscled-up freak. He is Ryan Braun, 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. He is bearing the consequences of his own decision, one that will cost him 65 games and more than $3 million.
Even if that seems light, a fair argument to make, penalties beyond that creates a slippery slope, particularly when voiding contracts. Not only would it be discouraging to see free agent Braun go out and sign a new deal worth $50 million-plus – a deal that teams would clamor to offer him – it would embolden owners to seek new reasons for cancelling contracts. DUIs are worse than PEDs, right? Well, it would be mighty nice to slink away from that overpaid starter if he happened to make a stupid choice at the bar. And if that crime allows a deal to be torn up, well, why not all crimes? And so on, just like it used to be.
The MLBPA grew out of necessity. Major league owners were the true villains of pre-union baseball, conspiring to pay embarrassingly low wages, lock players into unfair contracts and make them feel guilty for having the temerity to ask for anything more, because how many other people would love to be playing a kids' game? Owners left to run amok do awful, awful things to employees. Even with the union around, they colluded and engaged in bad-faith bargaining and turned baseball into a game of intermittent labor wars.
Even though we're going on nearly 20 years of labor peace, the union cannot help but look at everything through this prism: Whatever we give baseball it will try to use for nefarious purposes. Drug testing is not there yet. Baseball wants a clean game, and so do the vast majority of players, and so that's what it's trying to do.
Tearing up contracts would be too much. It's painful for the Brewers to realize they still owe well over $100 million to a cheat who misrepresented himself. They also know that's part of the business. Alex Rodriguez did it, and Manny Ramirez did it, and so many others before them. Chalk it up to a sad truth. Some marriages just end ugly.
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