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Too Much Information
Richard Hoffer
February 11, 2008
Does the quest to know more about athletes—and umps—endanger us all?
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February 11, 2008

Too Much Information

Does the quest to know more about athletes—and umps—endanger us all?

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IN SPORTS, even in life, there's a screening test for just about everything. Ability? They have vast scouting systems and talent combines. Character? Management's got background checks. Intelligence? Wonderlic Test. Prison record? Fingerprinting. Hair loss? According to an e-mail that just this second popped into my in-box, there is a lab that will perform a "confidential and anonymous genetic analysis" related to the possibility of future male pattern baldness. One less thing, right?

But what might seem like reasonable research on the part of the employer can, with a little overzealous questioning, become an invasion of privacy. Major League Baseball caused a stir last week when word broke that it has been sending investigators to umpires' hometowns, nosing around. The snoops reportedly asked neighbors and friends if the men in blue appeared to live beyond their means or engaged in wife beating, marijuana growing or wild-party hosting. Baseball's people also wanted to know if the umps were known to be members of the Ku Klux Klan or had ever enjoyed a house call from the police.

The probe was dreamed up by someone in commissioner Bud Selig's office last year, in the wake of the news that NBA referee Tim Donaghy had bet on games he worked and fed inside information to gamblers, presumably not for the fun of it. (Donaghy pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce and is awaiting sentencing.) The Donaghy case prompted the NBA to conduct deeper background checks on its officials, and given the possible loss of confidence in the integrity of all our games that affair represents, it might at first seem appropriate to inquire of any big-ticket purchases by umps. But to Lamell McMorris of the World Umpires Association, the questioning "resembles secret police in some kind of despotic nation." Even Jesse Jackson was moved to say, in reference to the KKK issue, "[ MLB has] essentially defamed their people in their own neighborhoods."

Just how much do leagues and franchises deserve to know about the people they employ? The particulars vary depending on what state you live in, but in general bosses of any sort can test employees for illegal drug use. Ditto for reasonable background checks, as long as they are consented to by employees. (The umpires' union was asked last year by baseball to sign off on checks but had not yet agreed.)

But with so much money at stake, sports leagues may occasionally play the Big Brother role more closely than the Constitution allows. When then Chicago Bull Eddy Curry grew faint a few seasons ago, the team wanted to do DNA testing to establish the likelihood of his keeling over dead at tip-off. This is sort of like finding out whether you're about to go bald—but more so. Along the same lines, baseball, which can already test urine for the presence of steroids, now wants to test blood for the presence of human growth hormone.

In both those cases, players' unions have stood firmly, arguing that excretions might be one thing, extractions another. Curry lawyered up and refused—successfully—to hand over his DNA, arguing that it contained a potential wealth of information his employer (and his insurer) didn't have a right to. Baseball's union has stonewalled the HGH test, saying it prefers to wait for the development of a urine screen, which everyone knows is at least several years away. The NFL union toed the same line last week, announcing that it will gladly sign off on the urine test when—if—it exists, but that players' blood is off-limits. "We got a lot of big tough guys," said union head Gene Upshaw, "but they don't even like to be pricked on the finger."

Are these union leaders just helping cheaters avoid exposure? Possibly. Still, the issue raises the question of what, really, do we need to know? In my own case I need to know that my airline pilot is not coming off a tear, that my abdominal surgeon is not a crack addict, that my child's preschool teacher is not a pedophile. Much as I'd like to know if Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or Marion Jones juiced, I don't need to know. Especially if it means that by insisting on the most invasive type of testing, I am helping set a precedent that may result in less privacy for everyone. After all, once we allow one group to be stripped down to their DNA, no other group is safe. In the name of "security" or "national security" the testers will come knocking, even more as their methods improve. There will, as they say, be blood.

It is tempting to ask athletes and even umpires to meet a higher standard because they are the keepers of our games, and the athletes at least are heroes to our children. But the problem with DNA tests for heart trouble or cancer or other ailments is that they gauge the likelihood that those problems will develop, not their existence. Surely someday soon there will be a test that can forecast a pitcher's longevity. If somebody can sell me something over the Internet that will tell me I'm going to lose my hair (I have an awesome head of it at the moment, by the way), then somebody else can tell a G.M. that his top pick is at increased risk for alcohol abuse or Tommy John surgery or unsightly tattoos. But that doesn't guarantee said pick will turn into an alcoholic, or Dennis Rodman.

You can't blame the suits for wanting to find out as much as they can. But how sporting is it if management refuses, at the expense of workers' privacy and dignity, to take any chances of its own? Are we all open books when it comes to a payday? Is nothing—our past and future, our blood, our DNA—our own?

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