Congress Increases Pressure on Leagues
Republicans and Democrats in Congress made it clear Wednesday that unless professional sports leagues adopt a uniformly tough stance against steroids -- and maybe even if they do -- the federal government will step in and police drug use for them.
At the start of two days of hearings by a House Commerce and Energy subcommittee -- and on the eve of rival hearings by the House Government Reform Committee -- top management and union officials from baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer testified against federally imposed sanctions.
“From our perspective and I suspect from the perspective of many in Congress, the ability of baseball to police itself is preferable to legislation,” said baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. “If we cannot do it, and I really hope we can, I understand why legislation would be considered by Congress.”
Although there were plenty of lances thrown at all the sports executives, the subcommittee reserved most of its passion -- and anger -- for baseball.
“Most of us think that the only way to clear major league baseball fans of the last decade of doping is by harsher penalties,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who named two of his sons Nolan and Ryan, after the Hall of Fame pitcher. “I’m frustrated that the players’ union is resisting. I urge you to clean it up and adopt harsher measures soon and perhaps we won’t have to adopt legislation.”
Selig last month proposed harsher new penalties for steroid use in baseball -- a 50-game suspension for the first offense, a 100-game suspension for the second violation and a lifetime ban for the third. The so-called three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule is now being negotiated between Major League Baseball and the players’ union.
Baseball has long been protected from congressional action by its unique antitrust exemption. But years of suspicion about prominent players such as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds -- buffeted by Jose Canseco’s tell-all book, the BALCO doping investigation and the March hearings on Capitol Hill that put Major League Baseball on the defensive -- have changed the political climate in Washington.
“I believe in the last three or four months -- and I said this at the owners meeting last week -- that this is now an integrity issue,” Selig said. “Our program is working. But we have issues that now transcend that -- public confidence, integrity.” Later he added, “We can convince ourselves that it’s working, but that is not the issue anymore. The issue is the sport.”
The chairman of the full Commerce and Energy Committee attended the subcommittee’s hearing and warned the sports leaders that federal action was imminent.
“We’ve gone too long letting the marketplace do it,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). “We’re open to dialogue as to what’s best.” Encouraging the assembled to work with the subcommittee staff “so we do it right,” Barton added, “the only thing that is not negotiable is that we’re going to have a federal bill.”
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), has proposed legislation that would impose a two-year suspension on any player in any sport caught using steroids as well as random testing and monetary fines. Arguing against a “one size fits all” panacea, Bob Foose, executive director of the Major League Soccer Players’ Union, said that two years was a career-ender for soccer players.
“It is simply not fair to impose a penalty on Major League Soccer that would have a much more significant impact than one imposed on other leagues,” he said. Don Garber, commissioner for MLS agreed, noting that termination of a player’s contract by the league was “a greater deterrent” than a mandatory suspension.
And Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Assn., said he believed steroid use was “virtually nonexistent in the NBA.”
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) hammered Hunter on his statement, asking how he would know without testing. The NBA’s current policy is to test rookies four times during the season and veterans once, during training camp.
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union expires on July 1, and NBA Commissioner David Stern said he was proposing increasing the penalties for drug use. Barton told Hunter that if he needed any ammunition with his reluctant player constituency, he could cite the committee’s admonitions.
“We all get elected, I understand that,” Barton began. “Tell them the chairman says they’re going to have to. Make me the black hat.”
For the most part, the subcommittee directed its ire at baseball, specifically at Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) quoted sports commentator Bob Costas as saying that Fehr had been “spectacularly misguided” on steroids, that if he had agreed to sanctions earlier, “there would have been no pretext” for Congress to act.
Fehr said he did not respond to comments from “media personalities,” and that the first few years of baseball’s new drug testing showed a marked drop in usage. “Our program is working,” he said. Would the program have worked earlier? “In hindsight, it might well have,” he said.
Blackburn then asked Fehr if it was “the players or you” who wanted to keep penalties at current levels -- a 10-day suspension for first offense, 30 days for the second one, 60 days for the third and one year for the fourth.
Fehr responded that the steroid issue had divided the players between those who favored a defiant “Let Them Get a Subpoena” attitude to those who wanted maximum penalties.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a child psychologist and co-author of the 2001 book “The Angry Child,” skewered Fehr on why baseball players idolized by kids should not be punished for setting a bad example. “Would you give your kids five chances to experiment with dangerous drugs?” he asked.
Fehr said that players should be “subject to the law the same way everyone else is.” He added that “players are aware of these proceedings ... and if they weren’t otherwise following them, we have made sure they are aware of them.”
Responding to hesitation by all the sports leagues to have their drug policies monitored, as envisioned in the Stearns bill, by the U.S. secretary of commerce, Murphy noted that over the last few years, state and local governments have spent $20 billion building new sports stadiums. He likened the leagues’ attitude to, “Give us some money to build the stadiums but don’t watch what we do in the stadiums.”
Frank Shorter, an Olympic gold medalist in the marathon in 1972 and a former chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, urged the committee to impose a uniform standard on all sports, as the Olympic movement does.
“We have come to the point where you can’t police a sport and promote it,” said Shorter, who lost the 1976 Olympic marathon to an East German athlete believed to have been doping. “We all went through this. We can shorten their learning curve.”
Neuman reported from Washington, Elliott from Los Angeles.