The NFL pulled out a vial of "something must be done" antidote this week as the Seahawks racked up another PED violation, making them the runaway leaders in inability to deliver clean urine samples. The league's PR chief, Greg Aiello, sent out word via NFL.com that team ownership might have to pay, in cash, for the sins of its athletes.
Since at least 2008, the league has had a policy of fining teams with multiple offenders, whether they are suspended for PEDs, personal conduct or other substance abuses. It gives the appearance of holding franchises accountable for what may or may not be a permissive culture, or worse, an enabling one. Mostly, it promises to shut up indignant observers, who presumably will surrender their outrage as soon as they're patted on the head and told: "We've got this."
We don't get a public accounting of which teams have been fined or how much. We just get the pat on the head.
Of all the energy expended over PEDs in sports, far too little has been devoted to assessing team penalties. There's a presumption that teams pay intangibly in depletion of reputation, but no NFL franchise has ever been humbled for its PED busts to the same extent that Patriots were for their videotaping fetish.
In baseball, the Dodgers took an image hit when Manny Ramirez tested positive twice and suffered from the folding of the Manny-wood phenomenon. Likewise, the Giants endured disruption and shame from Melky Cabrera's positive test last summer, compounded by their years of coddling Barry Bonds when he insisted on bringing personal trainer/drug dealer Greg Anderson into the clubhouse.
But shame has a short shelf life, and the World Series parade in San Francisco repressed a lot of memories in the place where the team's image matters most. Some people remained keenly aware that Cabrera's 75 percent of a breakout season was embedded in the team's first-place finish. And there was no way to dig it out, much to Kirk Gibson's disgust.
Gibson, searching for something that felt like justice, called for longer suspensions as deterrents, but what he really wanted was for the Giants to pay a price, to give back some of what they gained by using a juiced player. The standings will never be altered according to drug penalties in American pro sports. The Olympic justice system, which swiped the relay medals of Marion Jones' teammates, won't apply -- not in Bud Selig's lifetime or Bryce Harper's or Robert Griffin III's.
But fines can and should be levied. They already exist as a precedent in the NFL. They're just not adequately publicized or sufficiently intimidating. A second offender in a single season yields a penalty of 25 percent of his salary during the suspension, and the number goes up per offender, but caps out at, for example, $500,000 for a fourth offense.
The fines should start at $500,000, if not more, and be imposed after a team's first PED positive. A fourth positive should prompt the docking of a draft pick, a sacrifice that would make teams and their fans apoplectic. But Roger Goodell keeps saying that he is committed to safety and to testing for growth hormone, which currently requires blood samples. If the players must give up their blood just to prove they are clean, the clubs can be expected to forfeit some of their most precious resources to balance any benefits they may have received from employing multiple doped players in a given period of time.
Is it fair to expect team owners to pay for individual athlete's choices? It certainly isn't fair that clean athletes have to urinate in front of another person, up close and personal, in the hopes of deterring their colleagues from amping up on hormones and stimulants.
Besides, the NFL already answered the fairness question by instituting its meager fines five years ago. As the joke about selling sex for three figures or five goes, now we're just quibbling over the price. The existence of that policy owes itself to a concern about teams regaining salaries from suspended players, but it also rests somewhat on the belief that due diligence by a team can influence player behavior.
In the interest of appearing to promote safety and prevent brain trauma, the NFL now fines players for doing things they were trained to do most of their careers. It's not too much to ask that the owners accept a nominal disincentive to look the other way as their employees chemically make themselves bigger, faster and crazier .
In baseball, the most intelligent objection to punishing and shaming juiced players has always been that these devices fail to address the profits gained by owners from chemically aided 50-homer seasons or .350 batting averages. Much of this complaint derives from a juvenile desire to persist in hero worship or an unfiltered love of the game and its stats -- but stripped of those shallow concerns, the objection retains substantial merit.
The failure of Congress, as it meddled in MLB affairs, to insist on owner penalties remains an exasperating example of superficial government oversight and favoritism toward the ownership society vs. workers. Without fines directed at the teams, players have every reason to believe that their owners want them to do whatever is possible to perform optimally. Do all of the owners know what their players are doing? Can they know? Of course not, but they might ask more questions if their cash and draft picks were at stake.
Consider comments made by then-Rangers owner Tom Hicks in 2007 about Juan Gonzalez possibly taking steroids to secure a fat deal and then giving them up after he got what he wanted.
"Juan Gonzalez for $24 million after he came off steroids, probably, we just gave that money away," Hicks said in an interview aired on KTVT-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Perhaps if Hicks had been facing a huge fine, he would have instructed his front office to investigate Gonzalez's power source more thoroughly. But the strongest argument for fining owners lies in Hicks' implication that Gonzalez might have cheated his employers by going off the juice.
Hicks made a mess of his tenure in Texas and generally degraded the status of baseball owners while he was a member, most notably when he splurged on Alex Rodriguez's record $252 million contract in 2001 and later whined about the dangers of excessive player salaries. But it's not clear whether his comment about Gonzalez made him an outlier among owners in opinion or simply in indiscretion.
We've yet to see a case in baseball in which an owner wriggled out of a hefty guaranteed contract because a player got caught doping. So to some extent, the deals already act as disincentives for owners to be cavalier about athletes' doping. But the wriggling may occur, especially if the player in question can no longer perform and the owner would have wanted out anyway. If so, employer penalties will buffer the belief that teams can skim the benefits of a player's doping and shuck most of the liability when he's caught.