MLB, Alex Rodriguez, and the Reason Rules Are Important

Sports leagues, like MLB and the NFL, are run according to rules that create the values they sell. This is the essential element in their operation and one that must be protected with vigor. Why is this? Some ask why the use of drugs is a problem anyway. The analysis of this issue starts with an examination of what is the product sold by these leagues.

The basic element of the product is a game played according to a set of rules. The value of a game is based, first, on the league it is being played in. This is the trademark value of the league. All fans recognize that the price, hence value, of their ticket, starts with the league. A NFL ticket is worth more than a high school ticket. Second, the value is based on the quality of the play, the skills of the players and the rules that control the operation of the league and the play of the game. These rules, roster limits, player eligibilty, selection (drafts etc.), transfer and playing rules are all aimed at creating a system where there is competitive balance among the teams. Success is based on the skills of the executives who implement the rules and select the right players, but the rules also limit their ability to dominate by being too successful. Third, the reason these rules, and rules banning performance enhancing drugs are part of this, are important in that it is through these rules, competitive balance is assured so there is value to the game, and this value is based on the fact that the outcome of the game, even one between the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, is in doubt.

The outcome’s being in doubt is what separates sports from other forms of entertainment, like theater. There is no doubt that King Lear will die at the end, and fans do not attend Lear in the tens of thousands as they do in sports. (If Lear, from time to time, rallied to recover his throne, attendance may be improved!)

This gets us to MLB’s suspension of Alex Rodriguez and a dozen other players for the illegal use of performance enhancing drugs. The outcome of the game must be based on a player’s natural skills and not the skils of some chemist. By imposing these rules by suspendiing players, MLB is protecting the sine qua non of its existence, competitive balance that is undertood to be fairly achieved.

The imposition of these penalties is important and the only question is whether they are severe enough to actually deter the illegal action.
If this were the Olympics, the players would be automatically suspended for two years for the first offense. In baseball, the first suspension is for 1/3 of the season, the second for 5/8th of a season. Only a third positive test results in life time suspension. In the era of multi-year contracts, anything less than a lifetime ban is meaningless.

Baseball has a rule calling for a lifetime ban for gambling, Pete Rose, for example, and no one gambles in baseball. The game’s integrity is protected by that rule. Maybe it is time to do the same for drug cheaters.  We are dealing with the value of a game and that is all they have, so it is time to impose the rule that wipes out the multi-year contract. That will be effective in ending this curse.

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