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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

A CEO’s Perspective on the MLB Drug Crisis

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is facing the greatest crisis of his tenure, one that could destroy all he has built since becoming interim commissioner in 1992. The proliferation of steroids and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) among MLB players has compromised the sport’s integrity, tarnished its brand, and endangered its future.

Baseball is America’s pastime. Its players are the role models for every young boy and girl; it’s not supposed to be world-wide wrestling. Are these bulked-up superstars who cheat to break world records the people we want our sons and daughters looking up to?

As a boy, I was addicted to baseball. Growing up in Michigan, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Detroit Tigers fan. I idolized Al Kaline and Harvey Kuehn. When I was ten, my father drove me to Tiger Stadium to see the Tigers play Boston, led by the great Ted Williams. When Williams came toward the dugout before game time, my father urged me to get his autograph. He graciously signed my scorecard, looked up and grinned, “I hope you’ll be out here some day, kid.”

In the ninth inning, the Tigers were up 3-0 as the Red Sox filled the bases. Big Ted stepped to the plate, took a giant cut, and the ball sailed into the stands. Final Score: Red Sox 4, Tigers 3. In retrospect, how would I have felt had it been revealed that Williams used PEDs to beat my Tigers? A role model destroyed, and young boy’s belief in heroes shattered.

For years rumors of drug use have simmered as players bulked up and shattered previously untouchable records. Thanks to the partial leaking of a 2003 league-wide drug test, a celebrity list of PEDs-infused players has recently been exposed. On August 26th the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal agents wrongfully seized the 2003 drug test results as part of the otherwise legal BALCO investigation. But what’s out there is out there, and the blight on baseball is clear. Regardless of legality issues, the requisite media circus has followed, with outed players running for cover under non-committal sound bites (“I did not know what was in the shake/shot/pill”). Meanwhile, fans and sportswriters are furiously questioning America’s pastime.

The most shameful aspect of this scandal is that these players, their managers, and league administrators – including Selig – were well aware of rampant substance abuse, yet no one stepped up to bring the sport back to purity and legitimacy.

As a result, baseball is in a tailspin. Like so many failed corporations, the seeds of destruction were sown by flawed leadership. Commissioner Selig, the players association, team owners, managers, and players are all in denial that their leadership failures enabled the steroid-ridden atmosphere. At the top, Selig failed to come clean with the damaging report six years ago and failed to enforce an effective league-wide, anti-doping program. Individual team owners and managers failed to monitor their players. Worst of all, players failed to control themselves.

MLB disseminates a product, markets merchandise, has consumers, shareholders, and even a union. Why shouldn’t the rules of business apply? GE cannot sell defective microwaves. Nike wouldn’t dare sell sole-less shoes. What makes baseball’s leadership believe it can peddle a flawed product without the fans eventually turning away?

How should MLB leadership, with or without Bud Selig, turn around the business, particularly when they themselves have been complicit in the corruption?

Let’s examine the lessons from my book, 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis, to put baseball back on track:

#1: MLB must face the reality that fans are angry and sportswriters are disenchanted, and yet players seem ambivalent. It is high time for Selig to acknowledge his mistakes publicly so that he can clear the air and begin to regain lost trust.

#2: The Commissioner’s office must bring together owners, players, and MLBPA to develop complete solutions to the problems.

#3: MLB must dig deep to find the root cause of this plague. What compels players to cheat? Money? Fame? What similarities exist among juiced players? Increasing punishments and testing recurrences hasn’t worked, so an in-depth examination is required.

#4: Get ready for the long haul. As Xerox Chair Anne Mulcahy says, “A lot of crises seem to happen overnight, but they have really long roots, like 10 to 15 years.” A quick fix is impossible. It will take time to clean up the league. If the Commissioner has a long-term commitment, the problems can be ameliorated.

#5: Don’t waste this crisis. This is an opportunity to rebrand baseball in a positive light. Come clean, and rebuild MLB as true to its roots as America’s pastime, and the first great modern spectator sport.

#6: You’re in the spotlight, Mr. Selig. Everything you say and do is being watched. Be candid and transparent. Most of all, accept responsibility for your role in this crisis.

#7: Don’t hunker down. Go on the offensive. Swing for the fences. Institute a zero-tolerance policy and enforce it. Rally support of the fans, owners, players and even the sportswriters for ridding baseball of PEDs.

After 17 years as MLB commissioner, the drug crisis is the real test of Bud Selig’s leadership. He can duck and forever tarnish his reputation, or he can step up and follow his True North. If he doesn’t, America’s national pastime may be, well, something of the past.