Secrets Are Not To Be Fehred

“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open”–Luke 8:17

What’s so interesting about this quote is that it was uttered long before wiretaps, camera phones, paparazzi; the electronic media were gleams in the collective eyes of humanity.

Never has this been truer than within the realm of baseball: The Black Sox got uncovered. Joe DiMaggio, despite all his efforts, couldn’t keep the shady side of his life secret from beyond the grave. Jim Bouton opened the doors of the clubhouse to the world’s prying eyes in Ball Four. Pete Rose bet on the Cincinnati Reds.

And so it goes.

Before I continue I would like to say this: I have always been impressed with Don Fehr the man. He has always struck me as upfront, principled, straightforward, consistent and bloody intelligent.

Yes, he doesn’t come across well publicly. Of course living in the shadow of Marvin Miller will have that effect. Miller too enjoys these qualities but he was much more polished in the spotlight and is far more patient than Fehr.

Having said this, Fehr is also an ideologue and a rather stubborn one at that. It is this quality that is causing his employers a lot of headaches. Miller was the force of consensus. He didn’t make a move until he was sure 100% of the players were behind him. He got all the players on the same page taking whatever time was necessary to ensure that all the players agreed with whatever policy they were to implement among themselves.

This forged an unbreakable unity that became the hallmark of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

After awhile this unity became assumed—even when this was not necessarily the case. Fehr’s doggedness helped maintain that image.

Miller forewarned that when one side becomes complacent, the other side grows bolder, and that holding your place, marking time, attempting to maintain the status quo was an invitation to be shoved backwards. This is what Fehr did. The MLBPA became a single-minded vehicle to drive up the salary bar. In doing this, however, it ignored a bunch of other issues that are important to the players. With some of these issues it appears that rather than consulting the players and building a consensus [on them] he let his, and to a lesser extent Gene Orza’s, personal ideologies be the former of policy in these areas.

Toss in Fehr’s noted stubbornness and you have the recipe for problems.

We have seen players hauled before Congress. Mark McGwire’s and Rafael Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame chances have been severely damaged. The greatest player of our generation’s achievements will be forever prefaced with “but…” and now between leaked Grand Jury testimony, Jason Grimsley’s affidavit and the Federal Government’s seizing of the failed drug tests of 2003 a lot of players’ lives are about to become far more difficult.

The easy response is that the players have nobody to blame but themselves—nobody forced them to do anything.

And that’s true.

But, it should be noted that the players didn’t create the environment that made it easy and risk-free (not speaking about health risks here) to use anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Not entirely anyway.

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Don Fehr believes in the right of privacy and that it’s absolute—or bloody close to it. For the most part he’s right. We live in the real world, however, and ideologies often don’t translate well there. We should be willing to fight for our rights because we know where slippery slopes can lead.

We have to be practical and realistic too. Baseball is public domain. The players are public figures. They chose a lifestyle that’s lived under both a spotlight and a microscope. While they have every right to privacy that we do, the simple fact of the matter is that the things they say or do are given more weight than a teacher, a nurse, a social worker etc. That doesn’t say much about our priorities but in this place and time that’s how things are.

The scrutiny they live under is a sword that cuts both ways. They have to forego a measure of personal privacy; if people didn’t care so much about what they do they wouldn’t be earning millions of dollars. I don’t make $10 million a year because nobody wants to watch me type and is willing to pay for the privilege of doing so. The government won’t use hundreds of millions of your tax dollars to build me an office where people can watch me work. Corporations aren’t willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to sit in the lap of luxury so they have the right to be present whenever I decide to sit down and type a column. A family of four isn’t going to blow a few hundred to spend an afternoon watching me sit in my boxers struggling to digitize my thoughts and then have media outlets grill me on why I decided to write what I did afterward. I have more privacy because of that but less income.

Again, that’s the real world.

Our right of privacy was what caused Fehr, and before him Marvin Miller, to adamantly oppose drug testing. Even after the cocaine scandal in the 1980s, the MLBPA vociferously fought against testing even if it meant all it was doing in some cases was protecting a player’s right to break the law.

This stance made it easy for players to dabble in anabolic steroids—even stuff that other athletes had given up on because their sports had drug testing programs. There used to be a program of where a player could be tested for ‘probable cause,’ but it was never invoked for obvious reasons—if a player was producing and selling tickets there would be no reason for a club to damage that. Further, clubs knew that the MLBPA would fight tooth and nail against any sanctions they tried to impose on erring players. They had seen this enough times when players were caught with drugs by various law-enforcement agencies.

Absent testing with pre-set penalties there was no incentive not to use, especially with hundreds of millions of dollars available to players who could produce regardless of how they got that way.

Would Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi etc. use these things if there were legitimate testing in place with disincentives for using performance-enhancing drugs? This much we know: Fehr’s ideology created no disincentives and a whole lot of incentives for filling their bodies with them.

Further, Fehr’s ideology didn’t protect the players’ privacy over the long haul. Now we’re going to know in detail who was breaking the law and who wasn’t. Whatever names are released—those players are going to find that they have less privacy than they do now.

All because Fehr let ideology get in the way of basic pragmatism. The NFLPA attacked the issue of drugs realistically. Their testing program has a lot of holes too but nobody’s on their case because they understood how the real world works. It’s not like Fehr didn’t know history. It’s not like Fehr didn’t know that certain players were breaking the law. Fehr had to know that when someone breaks the law it is going to cause intrusion into whatever body is violating those laws.

Some of it, but not all of it, could have been avoided. Fehr let his personal viewpoints color how he handled the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, and over the long haul the only thing his constituents have come away with is a lot of money. Their health might be jeopardized, their reputations might be ruined, honors might be denied, and in the ultimate irony of all, the players’ privacy wasn’t protected at all; the opposite has happened, now they will be under even more scrutiny into their personal affairs.

Now Don Fehr is pleading:

“You get to the Hall of Fame mainly through the voting of baseball writers. I just hope that the writers judge the players on what they did on the field. It’s a shame what happened with Palmeiro … I think the owners and the players’ union are making every effort to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. The program we have in place is really good.”

It could’ve been avoided.

It’s time for Don Fehr to get back to the roots of the MLBPA. Forget about the salary bar. A system is in place that ensures that as the game’s revenues continue to grow so will player compensation. Fehr should learn from his mistake and leave his personal feelings at the door. He is not being paid for what he thinks; he’s paid to represent all major league players’ wishes. It’s time he found out precisely what those things are and learn to build a consensus that reflects the realities of the world we live in and not due to a personal value system that, while noble, doesn’t serve his employer’s best interests.

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