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SBJ/March 15 - 21, 2004/OpinionPrint All
In the perennial competition between the owners and the players union to see who can most impede the game of baseball, the union has reclaimed the lead with its short-sighted stance on steroid testing.
The union continues to oppose any serious effort at testing its members for the use of performance-enhancing substances, even as published reports raise questions about the achievements of some of the game's top stars and even as a federal grand jury is asking pointed questions. At the recent Octagon/Street & Smith's Sports Group World Congress of Sports, the union's No. 2 official, Gene Orza, went so far as to argue that steroids are no more a health risk than cigarettes are and that the union is acting in the best interests of its members.
The union couldn't be more wrong.
While the health issue is real, the point to remember about steroid use in athletics is that it artificially distorts the nature of competition. It's like permitting some hitters to use aluminum bats, or allowing some fielders to use oversized gloves and some pitchers to apply lubricants to the baseball. Just as much as gambling does, science and technology can threaten the integrity of the athletic contest, and the integrity of fair competition is really all baseball or any other sport has to sell.
Major League Baseball is coming off one of the most compelling postseasons in years, thanks in large part to the presence of the Cubs and Red Sox. The powers that be should be working to build on that excitement, not fending off suspicions that the game is juiced. Will baseball attendance and television viewership suffer from the steroid controversy? Maybe not, but the game is risking damage to its stature nonetheless.
Nobody really knows the extent of steroid use in Major League Baseball. A half-hearted testing effort last season found 5 percent to 7 percent positive readings. Some former players have put usage rates at 50 percent or more. Regardless of what the true figure is, there is a substantial number of players who don't use steroids but who are being unfairly tarred by the brush of guilt-by-association. Just how is the union serving their interests?
As an interesting aside, take a look at the actions of Damon Stoudamire, the Portland Trail Blazers player who voluntarily took a drug test earlier this month for a newspaper columnist. The player subjected himself to criticism from his own union — simply to clear his name in public. We aren't advocating that everyone be asked to prove their innocence, but Stoudamire offers a worthwhile counterpoint to the baseball union.
It's not just the union that has its head in the sand on this issue. Management, the owners and the commissioner's office have not pushed as hard as they could. Even such basic steps as keeping players' private "trainers" out of team locker rooms seemed an afterthought. Commissioner Bud Selig's response, as it often is, was to issue a gag order.
If Major League Baseball, its management and its players union cannot find a way to get steroids out of the game, they are as good as inviting the U.S. Congress to get involved. And you can rest assured that governmental intervention is the least desirable way to go. If that happens, blame union recalcitrance most of all.
Your March 1 article referencing local civic leaders as posing "obstacles" to the possible expansion of Major League Soccer to Houston ["MLS poised to grow in new directions"] couldn't be further from the mark. What you label an "immigrant" population is in fact the source of incredible vitality and growth for the greater Houston area. Our civic leaders have long celebrated the many diverse cultures that make up Houston's citizenry.
We are proud to be a community with 78 foreign consulates and over 65 languages spoken in local homes.
The citizens of Houston have always been supportive of sports and our local teams. Over the last four years we have opened up three publicly financed state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venues — Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and the Toyota Center. Within the last six months we have hosted Super Bowl XXXVIII and the Tennis Masters Cup and are getting ready to welcome the world to MLB's All-Star Game this summer.
As one would expect from a culturally diverse region, support for the "beautiful game" is strong. The USA-Mexico exhibition game at Reliant Stadium on May 8, 2003, was a sellout, with more than 70,000 in attendance, and was feted by US Soccer as the "best crowd of 2003." On Jan. 10, Chivas performed at Reliant and drew more than 35,000 fans for a match against Club America.
Houston's Hispanic population of 1.4 million grew by 75 percent between 1990 and 2000 and is now the largest in Texas. Demographers expect that within 30 years Hispanics will be a majority of Houston's population.
Clearly, the civic and business leadership of Houston not only understand these trends but embraces them. In fact, Houston's racial and ethnic composition today resembles where the United States will be in 60 years. If it is true that "demography is destiny," we in Houston feel pretty darn good about our future. We have no doubt that Houston would be a great home for Chivas USA.
William Burge is chairman of the Harris County Houston Sports Authority.