Ethics at Work: Ahab's whale or a guppy on steroids?

Mitchell committee parlays little power into big names.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
Remember the Mitchell Report? "We are not a tribunal. We complied with the request that we not determine the guilt or innocence of individuals or of the parties. We did not have the power to compel the testimony of witnesses or the production of documents. Most of the information we received came from the parties and, understandably, it largely tended to support their arguments." Well, he's done it again. Last time he was only trying to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but this time he's taken on a much more daunting task: cleaning up Major League Baseball of steroids, human growth hormone and other banned performance-enhancing substances. Again acting without subpoena power and with a mandate not to determine guilt or innocence, Former US senator George Mitchell succeeded in putting together a surprisingly beefy 409-page report on the extent of the problem and suggestions on how to solve it. As the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell wrote, "For more than a year, the Mitchell commission on performance-enhancing drugs appeared to be a harmless fishing expedition that might land a few guppies. After all, what can you expect to catch with five-pound test line, a defiant players' union and no subpoena power? Yet, apparently by dumb luck, a baseball drug peddler got caught, then rolled over on an insignificant scoundrel who happened to be Clemens's trainer. In a blink, baseball's blindfolded Ahabs found a whale in their Seine." (Evidently, even the new Mitchell Report recalls the tension between Israel and Ishmael.) The impact on America's national pastime aside, there's a lot of business ethics in this report and its aftermath. The main issue raised by the report is that it names names - lots of names. The report gives evidence of steroid and HGH use by scores of current major leaguers, including pitcher Roger Clemens who, until last week, was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. (Sportswriters did not miss the parallel to Shoeless Joe Jackson, who would almost certainly have been inducted were it not for his involvement in the 1919 "Black Sox" game-fixing scandal, and Pete Rose who was caught betting on ballgames.) The problem is one that arises frequently in our own inquiry-commission-crazy country. The Mitchell commission didn't have the special protections of a court of law - testimony under oath giving credibility to witnesses; innocent until proven guilty; defined and equitable rights to respond to accusations etc. But it is far more serious than say a journalist's report. Indeed, Jose Canseco alleged steroid use by Clemens and others years ago, but since it was just a private book the accused could safely ignore the accusations. Mitchell's report will certainly have an affect on league policy. There is no doubt it will create irresistible pressure on the players union to agree to stricter testing procedures. And, judging from the record of past inquiries (like that of the "Black Sox"), it may well serve as the basis for suspensions or other actions against players. Here the problem is compounded because the report was not commissioned by a neutral third-party but rather by the Commissioner of Baseball, who represents the owners - that is, the same employers who will now adopt a stricter policy towards union members. Despite these concerns of unfair treatment of the workers (even though the average player makes about $3 million a year, they're still the workers; believe me, the owners make a lot more), I think the report and its recommendations are fair. Here are the reasons: 1) Above all, the recommendations are not bad for the players. On the contrary, they are good for the players. This is not a typical case of the factory owner adding the insult of urine testing to the injury of poor pay to workers. Getting rid of drugs will be good for the players collectively because it will add to the appeal of the game. Furthermore, it will be good for the players individually. The report emphasizes that most players don't use drugs. Ergo, most players will benefit from getting rid of drugs and the unfair competition they suffer from drug users. Random testing is an annoyance and an inconvenience but I think you can expect that when you make $3m. a year. And while baseball players are not using the deadly doses used by some pro football players, there is evidence of health damage at their levels as well, so even the users can expect to benefit from enhanced well-being. 2) The players were given every possible opportunity, collectively and individually, to give their point of view in the first place, and to respond to accusations once these were made. The players union was more than simply uncooperative - it was, as Boswell wrote, defiant. Mitchell himself was granted only one interview with only one union official, and the union urged players not to speak to the commission. Every player whose name arose in the course of preparing the report was invited to appear and give his own point of view but only a very few did. Union chief Don Fehr explained that the lack of cooperation was due to concern over criminal investigations - I'm not sure that this explanation will do much to reassure fans. 3) Such a boycott on the part of a union can sometimes be justified. Going back to the case of factory workers, they could reasonably suspect that an "independent report" is merely a velvet glove to cover the iron fist of hostile management intentions. If they can't stop the recommendations, at the very least they can avoid seeming to condone them. But, in all fairness, such a suspicion seems very far-fetched in this case. Senator George Mitchell can hardly be suspected of being a hit man for the team owners. His impressive record as an impartial and independent investigator includes his forays into the politics of the Middle East and Northern Ireland. (He was even offered the position of justice on the Supreme Court, and we know how non-partisan those guys are.) The Mitchell commission labored under the same handicaps that plague all similar commissions - the power to make or break careers without the safeguards guaranteed in a proper tribunal. In addition, the commission was appointed by the employers whereas its conclusions will primarily affect the employees. Thus the players were formally justified in refusing to cooperate. However, given the salient interest of the players, collectively and individually, in cleaning up the game; given the relatively minor inconvenience anticipated compared to the very healthy salaries they earn; and given Mitchell's impressive record of independence, I think that the players have nothing to fear from the report's recommendations, and no one but themselves to blame for any instances where they omit their point of view. [email protected] The author is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.