If a Major League Baseball player decides to load himself up with performance enhancing drugs, he does so knowing that he will be suspended for 50 games and publicly shamed if he gets caught.
If that same MLB player decides to have several drinks at a bar before getting behind the wheel, he does so knowing that the league will punish him by...
Well, doing nothing.
Arrests for driving under the influence were a hot-button topic in Major League Baseball in 2011 when six players were arrested for DUI by early May. Among the offenders were Miguel Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo and Derek Lowe.
This hot button has been pushed again this week thanks to Colorado Rockies veteran first baseman Todd Helton, who was arrested in the Denver suburbs early Wednesday morning and charged with drunken driving and careless driving, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Helton apologized and "humbly" asked for forgiveness and the Rockies offered up the usual company lines, saying that Helton "clearly understands the seriousness of his poor decision" and that he has taken "full accountability for his actions."
MLB's response has yet to be heard. Actually, there may not even be a response, as the league trusts teams to handle issues such as DUIs internally.
The Denver Post has reported that the Rockies aren't planning on disciplining Helton. He has a ways to go before he's square with the law, but he's already square with the Rockies and, by extension, Major League Baseball.
The general message from MLB translates to something like: "If you do PEDs, we will destroy you! If you drink and drive, just be careful, alright?"
Anthony Witrado of the Sporting News sees a problem here:
While the league goes hard after guys who dope to give fans better performances and thus a more entertaining product, they do nothing to punish those who endanger their lives as well as the lives of others on the road. DUI arrests among baseball players might be below the national rate, at least as far as we know based on the players who have had arrests made public, but this is a serious problem for the league nonetheless.
Witrado backed up his charge that the league has a "serious problem" by tweeting some damning numbers:
By Sporting News' count, 12 MLB players, an exec, a bullpen catcher, an announcer and a HOFer have been busted for DUIs since start of 2011— Anthony Witrado (@WitradoSN) February 6, 2013
To put this in perspective, only 10 major league players have been suspended for PEDs since 2011. Baseball probably doesn't have more drunk drivers in its ranks than juicers, but the numbers still don't look good for MLB from a public relations point of view.
The league is fighting a losing battle on one front while ignoring a battle it could be winning on another.
If there's a bright side, it's that six of the 12 player arrests were made in a matter of months in early 2011, meaning the other six arrests have happened over a period of roughly two years. While that number doesn't scream of an epidemic, it still indicates a very serious problem.
If you want to see what a real DUI epidemic looks like, just take a glance at the NFL. Jarrett Bell of USA Today wrote in December that 28 percent of all NFL arrests since 2000 have been for DUI charges. There were 18 DUI arrests in 2012 involving players, and 20 involving players in 2006.
In light of the NFL's DUI problem, MLB's DUI problem doesn't look so bad. This could be a sign that baseball players don't have the same kind of reckless gene that football players have, or it could mean that ballplayers have simply been lucky enough to avoid detection.
I hope not. If good luck is the only thing standing in the way between MLB having a DUI problem and a DUI epidemic, one shudders to think of the crisis the league will have on its hands if its good luck turns bad.
Granted, there's only so much MLB can do to prevent players, coaches, executives and whoever else from driving under the influence. They're going to drink when they want to drink, and not all of them are going to have the wherewithal to avoid getting behind the wheel when they do.
What MLB can do is create a deterrent, as it has with PEDs. Players know what they're risking when they load themselves up with PEDs. They need to know that they're risking something when they have a few drinks with their car keys in their pockets as well.
Presently, no such deterrent exists. By leaving disciplinary measures up to a given player's team, MLB is enabling teams to prioritize their competitive interests over their moral ones. Furthermore, alcohol is not banned under MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, nor is alcohol specifically addressed in any way.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported in 2011 that the league was considering including some sort of disciplinary policy for alcohol-related arrests in the new collective bargaining agreement, but the only section of the new CBA that specifically mentions alcohol comes on page 224 and says nothing about suspensions or fines. It merely speaks of mandatory treatment.
The league needs to do better than that. And thankfully, the league can do better than that—but only if Commissioner Bud Selig wants to flex his muscles. That's something he doesn't appear to be very interested in doing unless PEDs are involved.
The CBA permits players to be punished for "just cause for conduct that is materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests of Baseball." This is essentially baseball's answer to the NFL's personal conduct policy.
It's also presumably what allowed Selig to suspend then-Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young for seven days last year after he got drunk in New York, yelled anti-Semitic slurs, attacked a group of tourists and was arrested for harassment.
“Those associated with our game should meet the responsibilities and standards that stem from our game’s stature as a social institution,” said Selig in a statement, via The New York Times.
If Selig is so worried about baseball's status as a social institution, then why is he not going out of his way to make examples out of those arrested for DUI?
Selig certainly should be more intent on making examples out of those arrested for DUI than he was on making an example out of Young. What he did was wrong, against the law and damaging to the league's integrity, but those who drink and drive are doing something wrong, breaking the law, damaging the league's integrity and putting their lives and the lives of others in danger.
Which is the more dire problem in Major League Baseball?
The league is so serious about PEDs that you would think the very use of them was a life-or-death issue. Driving under the influence is an actual life-or-death issue, and Major League Baseball basically pays it no mind.
As long as this is the status quo, MLB won't be holding players to nearly as high a standard off the field as the standard it holds them to on the field. The league is only the social institution it claims to be within the confines of its own ballparks.
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