Penalties decreased to get support for steroids bill
WASHINGTON -- Aiming for a Senate vote on steroid legislation this week, lawmakers eased the proposed penalties Tuesday, calling for a half-season suspension the first time an athlete tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and John McCain, R-Ariz., contains a one-season ban for a second steroid offense and a lifetime ban for a third. It would apply to Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL and baseball's minor leagues.
Several bills that would standardize steroid rules across U.S. professional sports have been proposed in the House and Senate in recent months. Most -- including the original version of the Senate measure -- were based on the Olympic model: a two-year suspension for a first drug offense, a lifetime ban for a second.
During a series of congressional hearings and in private meetings with lawmakers, the leagues and their players' unions objected to those penalties as too harsh. They also say they should continue to set their own drug-testing rules and penalties through collective bargaining.
"I think, seriously, that they are under the opinion that we will not act," said Bunning, a former player elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. "We tried to explain to them that we are going to act because of their failure to do so, and I don't think it's sunk in."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has signed on as a co-sponsor, and Bunning said he expected it to pass as soon as late Tuesday or Wednesday. Bunning planned to meet with House leaders and sponsors of similar bills in that chamber.
Under current rules, a first failed drug test draws a 10-day ban in Major League Baseball (roughly 1/16th of a season), a 10-game ban in the NBA (about an eighth of a season), a four-game ban in the NFL (a quarter of a season), and a 20-game ban in the NHL (about a quarter of a season).
The House has three versions of steroid legislation. One introduced by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., calls for a half-season ban for a first offense.
"That we can agree on the penalties is very important," Stearns said in a telephone interview. "It's good news for trying to pass a steroid bill."
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., whose panel held a March 17 hearing with baseball stars Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and others, proposed a bill with the Olympic penalties. But Davis spokesman Dave Marin said the congressman told Bunning and McCain he probably would accept the three-tier penalty structure.
In April, commissioner Bud Selig proposed raising baseball's penalties to a 50-game suspension for an initial positive test, a 100-game ban for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third. Union head Donald Fehr rejected that proposal, and the sides have been negotiating.
The primary disagreement between players and owners is the length of the initial penalty, a baseball official familiar with the talks said on condition of anonymity because the discussions are secret.
The Senate bill would mandate that each player is tested at least five times a year and would urge leagues to erase records achieved with the help of performance-enhancing drugs.
The legislation would take effect a year after being signed into law, giving the leagues that time to change their own steroid policies and make them at least as tough as the law.
"Maybe -- maybe -- with a year to operate, to get their house in order, they will act on their own," Bunning said.
The Senate bill is S. 1960. The House bills are H.R. 3084, H.R. 2829, H.R. 3942
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press