"We have an open mind on the whole question of drug testing for major-league baseball players," Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said yesterday.
"Since, as we've seen recently, drug scandals tend to implicate everyone in a sport, I would think that baseball players would almost welcome a program that would help uncover those who have a drug problem and give them training and treatment," Kuhn said in an interview with The Washington Post.
"The unions in both basketball and football have been in a hurry to come out quickly against any (sportwide) testing, but I haven't heard anything from our players association. That seems quite interesting to me, and perhaps hopeful. I'd be curious about (union president) Marvin Miller's thoughts on this. I'm aware that, of course, he's got to have (legitimate) concerns about how anything like that would affect his people.
"I feel baseball does have a drug and alcohol problem. I'd never duck that. But it's clearly not an epidemic problem . . . I wouldn't make comparisons with other pro sports, don't know enough about their situations. But I think we have it under control . . .
"Nevertheless, as I said, drug testing is definitely an area in which we have an open mind," he said. "We've already looked at some options in this area, but we're not proposing any particular plan at this point . . . We want to do whatever seems most constructive."
Miller, attending hearings in New York yesterday, could not be reached for comment.
In the past year, both pro football and pro basketball have been shaken by charges from within that significant numbers of athletes have problems with drug use. For example, Don Reese, writing in Sports Illustrated recently, charged that many NFL players have used cocaine and some teams have numerous habitual users. San Diego running back Chuck Muncie, a former member of the Saints, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, States-Item that he once had a $200 a week cocaine habit. Muncie said he had curtailed his cocaine usage since joining the Chargers, but that he still has a problem with alcohol and marijuana. He said he would enter a detoxification center.
Last winter, John Lucas of the Bullets told The Washington Post he had used cocaine and that it had affected his performance.
By contrast, Kuhn feels that in his 14 years as commissioner, baseball has begun to face its traditional problems with alcoholism and amphetamines as well as, more recently, cocaine. Baseball's record in the area of alcoholism is no model. Dodger pitcher Bob Welch's recent book, "Five O'Clock Comes Early," discusses his own alcoholism in the context of the sport's tendency to view heavy drinking as a routine no more dangerous than batting practice.
However, Kuhn points out that, "We had the first (drug and alcohol) education and rehabilitation programs in any pro sport nearly 10 years ago.
"The 'protection factor' is essential. The player must know that there will be no punishment, no fines, if they come forward voluntarily," said Kuhn. "Even a player's own club is not informed."
Do players really believe word of their troubles won't get back to their bosses? "In this area, I think we need better education," admitted Kuhn.
"One of our advantages (over other sports) is that the Darrell Porter (drugs and alcohol in '80) and Bob Welch cases were handled so well," said Kuhn. "Their clubs, as well as the public, were so sympathetic. I think that proved to many players that they could get genuine help inside the system."
Baseball is not so lenient with those who have legal problems involving drugs. When Ferguson Jenkins was busted at the Canadian border for possession, Kuhn reacted just as NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle did toward Reese--with a $5,000 fine in the guise of a "voluntary" contribution to a drug program.
"If baseball has its drug problems 'under control,' then, I believe, it's partly the nature of the sport," analyzed Kuhn. "When a man performs almost every day for seven months, he must protect his reflexes. It's said some athletes can get away with using cocaine because it's a stimulant. But, even so, it's going to discombobulate the kind of precise skills that a ballplayer, particularly an everyday player, lives by."
The issue of an athlete's use of so-called "recreational drugs" raises tangled questions about how his personal privacy may conflict with the legitimate business concerns of his team or sport. After all, Kuhn comes to the problem as a business executive, not a social worker.
Kuhn was specifically asked: Does baseball have any more right, or reason, to concern itself with its employes' private off-field habits than a factory does, or a law office?
"We definitely have more reason to do it--both a moral and a practical reason," said Kuhn. "Morally, our players, whether they like it or not, are definitely role models to millions of kids.
"From a practical point of view, any pro sport is very visible, and so it's vulnerable to scandal . . . It can also become an integrity-of-the-game issue."
On the questions of rights, rather than just reasons, Kuhn, a lawyer, acknowledges that different professions have, of necessity, different policies regarding involving themselves in their employes' private lives. A police department, for instance, can give drug tests, but, as Kuhn put it, "I doubt if any law firm anywhere has given those tests. There'd certainly be a question of whether it would make good sense.
"We fall between the two extremes," he said. "That's why it's a difficult area."