Unions On Wrong Side Of Problems

By Phil Sheridan
Updated: June 25, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — There is a common thread running through two of the more unpleasant ongoing stories in American professional sports.

While baseball continues to stumble in the darkness, unsure of the size or shape of its steroid problem, retired football players are becoming ever more vocal about being discarded by the sport they helped build into the new national pastime.

The common thread: unions. With all due respect to the fine work done by labor unions everywhere, the men who run the Major League Baseball and NFL Players Associations are on the wrong side of these difficult and pressing issues. The reason is as simple as human nature itself: greed.

Both the MLBPA and NFLPA are committed to putting as much money as possible into the bank accounts of their current members. That’s understandable, except when they put that last available dollar ahead of the integrity of the sports, the long-term health of their members and the welfare of the men who played in the past.

When people say Major League Baseball ignored the burgeoning steroid problem in the early to mid-1990s, they’re right. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs – along with smaller ballparks and diluted pitching, to be sure – meant more home runs and that meant more fans. All true.

But more home runs and inflated numbers also meant bigger salaries. If you could hit 45 or 50 performance-enhanced home runs in a contract year, you could score yourself a long, fully guaranteed contract worth millions more than you would have earned by playing clean. It’s a risk any number of players, including pitchers, were willing to take.

That is the reason Don Fehr and the players’ union treated the whole idea of mandatory drug testing and punishments as if it were a flock of West Nile mosquitoes. The short-term gain – more money – trumped any concern about long-term health risks to the players or to the game itself.

When Sammy Sosa hits his 600th home run . . .

As Barry Bonds closes in on Hank Aaron’s career home run record . . .

When a player from the height of the steroid era dies at age 38 . . .

You wonder what role syringes and creams and amphetamines played. You can’t help it. And that is bad for baseball. So far, it hasn’t been bad enough to threaten those escalating salaries, but that’s a gamble the players’ union was willing to take.

“Your body will pay for it,” Dale Murphy, the two-time National League MVP whose iwontcheat.com is the beginning of a crusade against cheating in sports, said recently. “Physically, emotionally, you will suffer some consequences. I think the players association would earn itself a lot of respect if it would take the lead in trying to clean the game up. Make it like gambling. If you cheat, you’re out of the game.”

There is cheating in the NFL, too. There’s no telling how many players are using human growth hormone, for which the league does not test. The NFLPA has been more cooperative than the baseball union, but it still opposes blood testing as a means to detect HGH and other substances.

But the hot-button issue in football is the health, both financial and physical, of its former players. It is a complex matter, to be fair, but it really seems to boil down to this: The current players are willing to let their predecessors live in poverty, their bodies ruined by the violence of the game, in order to amass as much personal wealth as possible.

Things have reached the point where Gene Upshaw, head of the NFLPA, referring to Hall of Famer and vocal critic Joe DeLamielleure, told the Daily News: “I’m going to break his . . . damn neck.”

Here is what the current players need to understand. The game left generations of former players in terrible physical shape: ruined knees, arthritis, aching backs – and that doesn’t even include the disputed long-term effects of concussions. Normally, it would be unreasonable for someone to assume he was owed financial security for life because he played a sport professionally for a few years, but what of men who are legitimately disabled because of the violence of that sport?

The more obscene the NFL’s TV contracts, the more inflated the annual salary cap, the more enormous the signing bonuses, the more shameful the treatment of former players appears.

As with baseball, the risk is that fans become disgusted as they learn more about what is happening. It becomes tough to cheer for a player who throws his body around when you begin to suspect he’s destroying himself for your amusement and, worse, no one will care for him when he’s 50 or 60 years old.

The stakes are high in both sports. The unions can lead the way or settle for profiting from the shame.