Michael Weiner’s honeymoon as head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) is officially over. The end came abruptly in the form of a news report half a world away from MLBPA headquarters in New York, that a British rugby player had been banned from competition for two years after testing positive for HGH.
When confronted with the positive test, the player, Terry Newton, admitted his guilt and accepted the two-year ban. The case is the first recorded instance of a professional athlete being suspended for failing a blood test for HGH and immediately sparked speculation in this country on when such testing would be implemented in baseball.
MLB wasted no time rattling its sabers, announcing it was considering blood testing Minor Leaguers for HGH as a forerunner to testing Major League players. Subsequent comments from MLB headquarters suggested such testing is unlikely to be implemented this year. Of course, Minor League players aren’t protected by a union and therefore have no say in the matter. Not so with Major League players.
Weiner, who succeeded Don Fehr as head of the union last year, has been labeled the anti-Fehr for his casual and laid-back demeanor. But don’t be fooled. Like Fehr and a host of other union employees, Weiner is a lawyer. During his 22 years as an employee of the union, Weiner has been involved in negotiations with MLB on a number of issues, including drug testing. He was part of the united union front that stonewalled steroid testing of the players until the credibility of the game and its records were compromised, perhaps beyond repair.
Despite his informal and easy-going nature, Weiner isn’t about to cave to MLB’s demand that blood testing for HGH be implemented, despite assurances from the World Anti-Doping Agency that the test is valid. A single positive test - uncontested at that - isn’t going to soften the union’s stance that blood testing for HGH hasn’t reached the level of reliability that warrants its adoption. And on that issue, the union has ample support. There are countless experts who remain unconvinced of the blood test’s validity.
Contrary to some reports, the union’s adamant position against blood testing for HGH isn’t based on invasiveness or privacy concerns. Players give blood in spring training as part of an annual physical and the blood is then tested for a variety of medical conditions. It’s the reliability of the HGH test and the confidentiality of the testing procedures and test results that concern the MLBPA.
Of course, some of those concerns are of the union’s own creation. The union failed to destroy test results from the 2003 survey of players that led to the implementation of steroid testing in baseball. Those test results ended up in the hands of government officials and some have been leaked to the public, placing nearly a hundred players under suspicion.
The union is on record as willing to consider urine testing for HGH as soon as a reliable test is developed. According to scientists, that day is at least several years away, which means there is currently no reliable test – blood or urine - for HGH.
In response to MLB’s aggressive comments concerning HGH testing, the union issued a carefully worded statement reiterating its previous position. The statement acknowledged that HGH is currently banned under the Joint Drug Program, that the program allows for urine testing for HGH as soon as a “scientifically validated” urine test exists, and that the union would consider blood testing if, again, a “scientifically validated” test becomes available. In short, no way, no how, not now, will the union allow players to be tested for HGH.
The union’s position is legally and technically correct. However, public opinion is not on their side. The players gave up the high ground when they adamantly fought steroid testing until public pressure from Congress and the media left them no choice but to acquiesce to drug testing, a program that has since been amended three times.
For the public opinion against the players, Weiner can thank his predecessor, Fehr. But now the union is in Weiner’s hands. How he responds to HGH testing may ultimately define his term as union chief as well as his legacy.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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