This Is Your Sport Off Drugs

If only baseball would deal with the drug problem instead of cowering in fear

Imagine that George Mitchell's conflict of interest-ridden whitewash-in-the-making of a baseball steroids investigation somehow turned into an aggressive, impartial probe. The Justice Department's token harassment of Barry Bonds, meanwhile, became a full-fledged, sport-wide doping inquiry. Baseball's feeble drug-testing policy grew teeth. And Congress' hot air on the subject of sports doping miraculously condensed into statutes making pro-sports doping a form of criminal fraud.

In other words, consider what might happen to baseball if doping were regulated as severely as cycling's Tour de France. As readers of the sports section's back pages know, Le Tour is a wide-open race now that a Spanish Civil Guard investigation blew open a doping ring that implicated 200 athletes, including more than 30 cyclists, causing the top five finishers from last year's Tour to be yanked from the 2006 race. (Last year's winner, Lance Armstrong, was not implicated in the Spanish probe. He retired in 2005 and is not competing.)

As a result, Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc said, "Maybe we will get an open Tour with clean riders, with space for ethics, sport, and entertainment."

Baseball, on the other hand, seems to cower in fear that anything but the dope-ignoring status quo would be disastrous.

A Tour de France-like crackdown "might wreak havoc" on baseball, said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business.

"If people such as Roger Clemens were somehow touched by this, that might change the way fans looked at the game," said William Sutton, associate director of the DeVos Sport Management Program at the University of Central Florida.

But would it really be so bad? Couldn't a harder stance benefit baseball and other professional sports in the long run?

I recently peeked into this imagined alternative universe by examining the world of a San Francisco-based sponsor of the Tour de France's leading team. This sponsor's open acceptance of the Tour's hard-line anti-drugs attitude begs the question, are the Brahmins of American professional sports truly protecting their business by winking at drug cheats?

San Franciso's Barclays Global Investors announced June 19 that its iShares investment funds would become the new lead sponsor of the team backing Floyd Landis, a charismatic favorite to win the Tour de France. Like Lance Armstrong, Landis' story is one of brave perseverance through medical troubles. He's scheduled for surgery to replace a crippled hip after the Tour's finish.

For iShares, however, this recent venture into becoming lead sponsor of a major team wasn't pure feel-good corporate PR news. The Operación Puerto drugs scandal sidelined Landis' top two lieutenants in early June, the latest in a two-year string of drug-cheating headlines emanating from what is currently called the Phonak team.

But for Lee Kranefuss, CEO of Barclays Global Investors' U.S. Intermediary Business, which includes iShares, European cycling's relatively tough anti-drugs stance and resulting crackdown scandals have not scared them away.

Quite the contrary, the company has signed on for a three-year commitment that may cost it more than $30 million.

For this fund manager, dealing with the risk of having his company linked to a drug scandal isn't about poking one's head in the sand.

It's a matter of hedging, diversification, and taking the long view.

"We looked at that very carefully," said Kranefuss, who was in France for business meetings when news broke of the Operación Puerto Tour shakeup. "In any sport there are risks. The biggest one you run is, they don't do well, and nobody is as interested. So far, this is a situation we are very comfortable with."

So the question for Bud Selig becomes: "What are you afraid of?"

Judging from Kranefuss' analysis of his company's investment in cycling, it might be possible for other sports to confront the doping issue head on, without seeing sponsors flee for the exits.

The Operación Puerto affair didn't phase Kranefuss.

"So far we're very comfortable with it. We can't go into the details of the contract, but we watched, for example, what happened with Liberty Seguros and Team Mobile (two teams implicated in the scandal) and watched how people reacted to it, and we decided we could go ahead," Kranefuss said.

After the scandal subsided, cycling fans, myself included, settled down to rooting for overall favorites such as Landis, and reveling in the exploits of sprinters such as Robbie McEwen.

On July 13 Landis confirmed his status as a post-scandal Tour favorite by taking over the leader's yellow jersey with a third place in a 129-mile mountain stage finishing atop a 6,100 foot climb to Pla-de-Beret.

While U.S. viewership of the Tour has dropped since Armstrong's absence, European roadways are again packed in anticipation of watching the Tour roll by.

While Kranefuss would not reveal financial details, cycling sponsorship deals, such as the one where the U.S. Postal Service backed Lance Armstrong's former team, are typically worth at least $10 million per year. Currently iShares is a secondary sponsor of the Phonak team, with the eyes of millions of fans worldwide seeing the company logo appearing prominently on the shorts and jersey of Landis.

For the past two years Team Phonak has been up to its ears in drug scandals. In 2004 star rider Tyler Hamilton and his helper Santiago Perez were found by doping tests to have had blood transfusions in order to thicken their blood and boost endurance. Hamilton maintained his innocence, a stance initially backed by team managers.

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