NBA reveals plan for stricter policy at House hearing

Updated: May 18, 2005, 10:47 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The commissioners of Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL said Wednesday they want stricter drug policies -- and told Congress they have concerns about a "one-size-fits-all" steroid-testing law that would govern all U.S. pro sports.

In an unusual gathering of some of the most powerful people in American sports, the heads of management and unions from that trio of leagues plus Major League Soccer testified before the House Commerce trade and consumer protection subcommittee about the proposed Drug Free Sports Act.

The bill's strongest advocate appeared to be baseball commissioner Bud Selig. His sport's steroids program drew strong criticism from lawmakers at a March 17 hearing held by the Government Reform Committee, which is carrying out a separate inquiry.

As subcommittee chairman and legislation sponsor Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., put it: "Commissioner Selig has come out in support of the bill, and that might be out of frustration."

Since his earlier trip to Capitol Hill, Selig asked Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Donald Fehr to agree to increase penalties for positive tests -- including a lifetime suspension for a third offense -- and ban amphetamines.

"I have one objective in all of this, and I've told Don this a lot, and I've told everybody else, and I told the owners last week: My job is to rid this sport of steroids and rid any suspicion," Selig said outside the wood-paneled hearing room.

"I'm very comfortable telling you today that my program will rid the sport of steroids. I spent a lot of time talking to trainers, doctors, general managers, managers, players. I've devoted my life to this now."

Several lawmakers lauded Selig during the five-hour session, reserving their toughest questions for Fehr and NBA union head Billy Hunter.

"Mr. Selig, you've come a long way," Michigan Republican Fred Upton said.

By contrast, Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn asked Fehr, "Are the major league players pushing you to keep these penalties where they are, or is it you who is pushing to keep the penalties where they are?"

Not surprisingly, nearly all of the witnesses objected to various sections of the bipartisan bill, which calls for a two-year suspension for a first steroid offense and a lifetime ban for a second.

"A 'one-size-fits-all' policy could lead to a variety of unintended consequences," said MLS commissioner Don Garber, who can fire a player after one positive test.

After the hearing, Stearns acknowledged the penalty and appeals-process portions of his legislation "might have to be tailored for each of the sports."

Lawmakers began the recent wave of hearings by focusing on baseball in the aftermath of a San Francisco grand jury investigation into an alleged steroid-distribution ring and retired slugger Jose Canseco's book, "Juiced," in which he claimed there was widespread steroid use in that sport.

"This whole thing evolved because of baseball and mushroomed and engulfed every other sport," Hunter said after the hearing. "We don't have a steroid problem."

But now his sport's management and others are moving to tighten their testing and increase penalties in the face of congressional scrutiny.

NBA commissioner David Stern told the committee he wants to kick players out of the league for a third failed steroid test and double the punishment for a first offense to 10 games. During ongoing labor negotiations with Hunter, Stern also asked to increase the number of random tests for all players to four per season (only rookies face that many now) and increase the list of banned substances.

"We fully expect ... to start next season with a drug program that is far more comprehensive. We support Congress' involvement here," Stern said, though he did caution: "A policy that is the product of agreement between management and labor will always be superior to one that is imposed from the outside."

Some lawmakers focused on the NBA's current practice of testing veterans only in the preseason.

"Why is it so difficult to assume that basketball players may not need to use steroids? That it's anathema to what they do?" Hunter asked the committee.

Stearns replied: "I think it's reasonable to assume that if you don't test, you won't find out."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Bob Goodenow also argued that hockey players wouldn't be helped by steroid use. Their league -- which canceled its 2004-05 season in a labor dispute -- doesn't test for performance-enhancing substances.

But they told lawmakers they plan to put random testing and discipline in a new collective bargaining agreement.

Fehr told lawmakers that collective bargaining was the appropriate way to deal with employment issues, "even matters as controversial and politically volatile as random suspicionless employee drug testing." He said the legislation, if enacted, might call for an unconstitutional government-mandated search without probable cause, which would violate the Fourth Amendment.

Fehr joined Stern, Bettman and Goodenow in calling the penalties too harsh, with Fehr saying: "A two-year suspension for a first offense would, as a practical matter, end the player's career in the vast majority of circumstances."

The same panel will hear from NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw on Thursday.

Also Thursday, Stern, Hunter, Washington Wizards guard Juan Dixon and Houston Rockets trainer Keith Jones will testify before the Government Reform Committee.

"Why in the world did we ever get into a situation where steroids apparently were swallowed like M&Ms and adults winked at each other when baseball players started growing arms as big as tree trunks?" asked Texas Republican Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

"However it happened, I'm glad that it finally seems to be changing."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press