Baseball, Steroids and Business Ethics

Can we do anything constructive about the mess that is happening around us? Pete Khazen says "yes".

Major League Baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry. With complex contracts, major advertising and marketing plans, big-time execs in the hot seat every year, and millions of customers, MLB baseball is very much a business. It's not just a game. We are reminded of this every time players negotiate major contracts in the off-season, when fan-favorites are traded away to lower overall operating expenses, when bills pop up requesting tax dollars for new stadiums, or when ticket prices are raised to increase revenue on high-demand seats.

Everyone involved always reminds the media and the fans that baseball is a business. And it is. Players and coaches have to think of themselves and their job performance, right? Owners have to think of their investments and making their customers happy, right? The Commissioner's Office needs to make sure everything runs smoothly and that the business is properly controlled and managed, right? So with Major League Baseball being this multi-billion dollar business, why aren't all people involved expected to act with the same level of business ethics as any other industry?

Recent grand jury testimony leaks from the BALCO proceedings have ignited a steroid expose' in professional baseball. And now, with Jose Canseco's controversial Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big adding a roided up log to the fire, the media is swarming with coverage of who is doing it, who might be doing it, who did it in the past. Today's baseball headlines involving steroids are as common as Iraqi insurgent reports, but they all just seek out the who's and when's. They're just debating statistics, records, penalties, and asterisks.

So I'm here to point out that baseball got to this point because of a lack of business ethics.

It doesn't matter what kind of testing is put into place. It doesn't matter what weak (or strong) punishments might get enforced for using illegal substances. It doesn't matter what any Congressional hearing might produce or what President Bush might have to say on the subject. What matters is that baseball is a business, and it's suffering like any other business that does not require high standards of ethics.

With the latest controversy all kinds of folks, including players, coaches, owners, and agents, are coming out of the woodwork saying how they knew it was a problem for years. Or that they always had their suspicions but never knew anything for sure. Or that they only were aware of a few who had been using.

Why is it acceptable for all these people to play dumb; to look the other way? To avoid reading the writing on the wall? Why is it acceptable for them to allow their friends and colleagues to hurt, even kill themselves? Why is it ok for these athletes to cheat their teammates, their competitors, their fans? Is one person's health, family, future acceptable to sacrifice for a winning season; for a productive bottom line over a couple years? Is it acceptable because of the ignorant false theory that "everyone else is doing it"? The benefits of steroid use and other unethical behavior are only short-lived, but the negative effects can be felt years later. Acceptance or indifference to unethical actions only leads to dangerous backlashes down the road.

Just ask folks who worked in the trenches at Enron and WorldCom, or those executives now facing trial. For years, things were as good as it could get, but there was an unforeseen downside to unethical actions by a few that devastated thousands of employees and their families. Now the business world is turned upside down as the government creates new laws and companies scramble to make sure controls are in place to prevent similar incidents from happening again. But these new rules, penalties, and auditing cannot do it alone - just like random drug testing and stiffer penalties cannot do it alone in baseball. A successful business that wants to survive long term requires ethical leadership and expectations that employees and competitors follow suit. This is true for professional baseball too.

In the non-baseball business world, if an employee, executive, whoever is doing something unethical and/or illegal, anyone who notices has an ethical responsibility to report it. If you have a co-worker who is doing drugs at work or sexually harassing another co-worker, you have a responsibility to take action. Companies have a responsibility to institute processes, which allow for individuals to come forward and report such behavior. They also have a responsibility to protect those individuals. These ethical standards are always in the best interest of the employees, the company, the industry, and the customers. Anything else is unacceptable and dangerous.

Baseball should not be any different. Players and coaches have no problem pointing a finger, screaming and yelling when a pitcher is doctoring a baseball. So why do they look the other way when they notice their teammates have gained 25 pounds of muscle overnight and look like a Macy's Day Parade balloon? Just because he can hit an extra 30 home runs a season? But what about that guy who doesn't cheat, or that team that does keep the 'roids out of their clubhouse? Is it fair competition to the players and teams that don't cheat? Is it fair to the fans?

It's time for everyone involved in professional baseball tighten his or her ethical standards and start behaving in a manner that this business should demand. They like to remind us that baseball is a business, so it's time to start treating it like one all the time - not just when it's time for contract negotiations or when there's a need to lobby for tax dollars to build a new stadium. It starts with Bud Selig and the Commissioner's Office. It moves down to the owners, then to the managers and coaches, and finally to the athletes. Everyone is equally responsible. Even the media and fans have a responsibility to call out behavior that does not appear ethical. But everyone can't wait for the next person to step up. It starts with each of us as individuals.

With that said, I'll end with a message to all people in the MLB business: Look inside and ask yourselves if you are doing your part to practice good business ethics and demand that those you work with do the same. If you're not, Major League Baseball will continue to suffer through more hardships.

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