After numerous delays and weeks of conflicting rumors, Major League Baseball has finally body-slammed the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez with a suspension running to the end of the 2014 season. The fading slugger is accused of using both testosterone and human growth hormone over several years, as well as attempting to “obstruct and frustrate” MLB investigators. The massive punishment came just a couple of hours after MLB suspended 12 other players for violations of its policy on performance-enhancing drugs—but each for just 50 games. It’s not at all clear, though, that A-Rod’s punishment will stick, and the disparity in punishment is just part of the problem.
The authority for the 50-game suspensions is clear: the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program (usually called the Joint Drug Agreement), a compact entered into by the league and the players union after the steroids scandals of the 1990s. Under the JDA, 50 games is the penalty for a first violation. Presumably, all 12 of the non–A-Rod players saw the evidence against them and decided to accept their punishments—reportedly, no one plans to appeal.
According to MLB’s press release, Rodriguez’s 211-game suspension is a consequence of both violations of the drug agreement (taking PEDs) and baseball’s Basic Agreement (obstructing MLB’s investigation). Rodriguez’s suspension isn’t just greater than the 65-game ban that Ryan Braun recently accepted. It’s also more severe than even the 100-game ban that comes with a second violation of the JDA. So, is Rodriguez correct in suggesting that the real motivation here is to keep him from raking in money from his (insane) contract for as long as possible? And can he win the appeal he’s going to file?
We have some facts and legal principles to draw on in trying to figure out whether A-Rod can get his sentence reduced. Basically, his chances boil down to whether the arbitrator who will hear the appeal, Fredric Horowitz, thinks Commissioner Bud Selig had the authority to take such a drastic step.
It’s clear that the commissioner enjoys the broad authority we generally associate with a “czar” of any administration. In part, that’s because the job was created in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, where members of the White Sox were accused of taking money for throwing games. All agreed that some strict discipline was needed to restore credibility to the game, and the first commissioner, the baroquely named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, agreed to take the job only after given almost limitless power to act in the “best interests” of baseball.
Since then, the power of baseball commissioners has waxed and waned but has always been anchored in that broad right to protect the integrity of the game. Over the years, commissioners have voided the Oakland A’s attempt to dismantle the team by selling off the top players, suspended Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker for idiotic statements about gays and foreigners, and—most famously—kicked all-time hits leader Pete Rose out of the game for life for betting on baseball.
But there are limits to what even the czar can do. And as such, there are at least two possible ways A-Rod could win his appeal.
First, he can argue that the Basic Agreement between MLB and the union can’t be used to discipline him in this case, because the JDA provides the only acceptable punishment. On the face of it, this argument has some merit. The JDA is a tediously detailed document that sets forth (and then lists by name) three categories of banned substances: drugs of abuse (think marijuana and other drugs that aren’t likely to improve on-field performance), “performance-enhancing substances” (the agreement lists 70 different PEDs), and stimulants. The agreement is also a model of due process protections for the players, as it establishes the number of times players can be tested, sets out rigorous requirements for the testing itself, and—most significantly—sets forth very specific penalties for violations.
There’s even judicial precedent for the proposition that the commissioner is restricted to the punishments set forth in the JDA. In a 1977 case, Atlanta National League Baseball Club v. Kuhn, a federal court ruled that where Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had specifically told the clubs not to yap about potential free agents while they were still under contract, he could use his power to suspend voluble Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner for a casual remark about how he’d pay anything for slugger Gary Matthews. But the court also voided a second punishment—the Braves’ loss of a first-round draft pick in the following year—on the grounds that such a penalty wasn’t authorized by the collective bargaining agreement. In short, however broad Kuhn’s powers, they were limited by the terms of the agreement itself.