Wednesday, November 02, 2005

U.S. Congress: All Your Pro Sports Are Belong to Us

For whatever reason, this story didn't make many waves in the sports headlines yesterday, but Congress is reiterating its threat to introduce steroid legislation "to standardize drug testing and penalties for professional leagues:"
Three House bills with similar testing minimums and punishments have been proposed, including one sponsored by Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Government Reform Committee. That panel held the March 17 hearing with Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and baseball officials.

"If pro sports leagues don't get a handle on this problem on their own, members of Congress will be more than willing to do it for them," Davis spokesman Dave Marin wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "No matter which bill ultimately moves forward, one thing is certain: In the absence of self-initiated progress, legislation becomes a matter of when, not if."

What arrogance! It is telling that Marin uses cryptic terms like 'this problem' and 'progress' without being explicit about what they mean. Because the first obstacle for Congress is defining baseball's "problem." Is steroid use rampant in baseball (however 'rampant' is defined)? And if so, is enough being done to discourage and punish steroid use? These questions, if they should be pondered at all, ought to be considered by those with a vested interest in the game's wellbeing, such as its owners, players, sponsors, and fans.

Conspicuously absent from that list are members of Congress. Baseball's owners, unlike members of Congress, have invested hundreds of millions in their franchises. This includes money spent on player scouting, drafting, development, long-term contracts, etc. They have every incentive to keep players healthy and productive, since success is so dependent on fielding a winning, profitable team that pleases fans. Only baseball and its monied interests -- not Congress -- will suffer if customers perceive a problem with the game's fairness or integrity.

If fans grow disenchanted with "juiced" players or tainted competition, they'll express their dissatisfaction by refusing to watch the game either in person or on TV. They will no longer patronize the game's sponsors or support its endeavors, and the whole enterprise will get hit in the wallet, where it hurts. That's the only reliable gauge as to whether baseball has a steroid problem or not, and if it does, Congress has no responsibility either to uphold the game's integrity or to ensure that it remains profitable (national pastime or not).

And so we return to the first of our two key questions: is steroid use rampant in baseball? Ironically, the true answer is unimportant; it is the perception, and baseball's response to it, that matter. For better or for worse, baseball's officials were long indifferent to the issue, and that's when they ran afoul of the state. The decree had come down from on high: "Steroids are illegal. You will treat this issue with the seriousness and respect due the law." But baseball's "crime" was refusing to bend to Congressional will by acting as a proxy for its war on steroids. So it was not steroids that landed baseball in hot water but its collective shoulder shrug toward federal authority. Like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," the state will not be ignored -- or otherwise disrespected. As Butler Shaffer so eloquently puts it: "Anything that diminshes respect for the state apparatus or its purposes weakens the popular sanction upon which all political power ultimately rests." So Congress clearly felt the need to assert itself in this area without bothering to allow baseball to find out for itself how prevalent and harmful steroid use was within the game.

As for our second question -- if steroid use is rampant in baseball, is enough being done to curb and punish this behavior? -- it answers itself. If baseball's steroid policy should prove unsatisfactory, then the issue will need to be revisited by those facing the profit and loss test -- again, this includes baseball's owners and sponsors, not Congress. Whether for PR purposes or to get Congress temporarily off its back, baseball in 2005 had already implemented a new testing program for steroids; indeed, Matt Lawton today became the 12th player busted under the new policy. As a private entity, baseball should have every right to set these rules and mete out punishment at its own discretion.

But the state rejects a subordinate role in these processes (especially when there are cheap political points to be scored), and thus we have the spectacle of Congress acting tough while at the same time abdicating its real responsibilities: if federal law is violated, then the offenders must be prosecuted; that's why laws prohibiting the sale and possession of steroids were enacted in the first place. But this is not about the law, it's about PR: it's easy to look like a hero by grandstanding for the cameras and hammering on a politically unpopular constituency -- but prosecuting ballplayers for steroid violations is much riskier. So they instead bully baseball into adopting a politically acceptable version of justice. The yentas in Congress have once more overstepped their purview and substituted their judgment for the wisdom of the market. What a cowardly way to assert your authority!

But this is how the state racket operates, and a more perfect example of government-imposed externalities would be hard to find: the state shifts all of the costs of its policy onto baseball while assuming none of the risks. So the questions about steroids take a back seat to the lessons imparted by the Congressional response to the issue. Quite ironic that a group utterly wanting for ethics and intergrity should go forcing these virtues on others.

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