Congress puts other pro sports leagues on notice

Updated: November 16, 2005, 8:41 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Congress is sending a message to the NFL, NBA, NHL and their players: Now that baseball strengthened its steroids policy, we're turning our attention to you.

But those other leagues and unions aren't necessarily planning to get right to work rewriting drug-testing programs that already have been made tougher since lawmakers began focusing on the issue eight months ago.

"We don't think we need to stiffen our penalties," NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw said Wednesday. "Let Congress act if they want to," Upshaw said. "We have put a responsible model in place. We didn't need Congress to tell us to put it in, so why would we need them to modify it?"

"It's actually our model that they have been holding up as the way to go."

That's true. During the series of House and Senate hearings on steroids in sports, Major League Baseball repeatedly was criticized, and the NFL praised. As NFL spokesman Joe Browne said: "Other sports have modeled their drug programs after ours, which has been around more than 15 years."

But the landscape changed dramatically Tuesday, when baseball owners and players agreed to a 50-game suspension without pay for a first offense, a 100-game suspension for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third. Baseball also added testing for amphetamines.

"We have the toughest program now in American sports," commissioner Bud Selig said at the baseball owners' meeting in Milwaukee, "and I'm proud of that."

Under the new deal, a player would miss nearly a third of a 162-game season after a first failed test. The NFL's initial four-game penalty costs a player a quarter of a 16-game season, the NHL's 20-game initial penalty is about a quarter of an 82-game season, and the NBA's 10-game initial penalty is about an eighth of an 82-game season.

"The NFL's policy was recognized as the best in professional sports when they testified in April. Baseball's now adopted more stringent penalties and has a much more complete list of banned substances," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said.

He and Tom Davis, R-Va. -- chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which held the March 17 hearing with Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco -- sponsored a bill with a two-year ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second across pro sports. By Tuesday, though, they were supporting legislation sponsored by Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., with a half-season ban, followed by a one season ban, then lifetime ban.

While that legislation was put on hold after baseball's announcement, those four lawmakers, plus the sponsor of another House bill, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., all made clear the threat of congressional intervention isn't disappearing.

"We'll leave it there and see what the other major league sports do," Bunning said. "We are very anxious to rid all professional sports of any ... steroids or amphetamines."

Or, in Davis' words: "We reserve the right to push the button" on the legislation.

Stearns was most cautious about praising baseball, saying he wants to see a signed deal. Owners could ratify the agreement at their meetings that began Wednesday at Milwaukee. The union's executive board will decide when it meets Dec. 5-9 in Henderson, Nev., whether all players should vote to ratify the agreement -- or if board approval is enough.

"This is a promise and not a policy," Stearns said in a telephone interview. "I've dealt with them before in a hearing and they made promises and nothing happened. I'm not convinced."

He also still thinks steroids rules should be standardized across sports.

"We're still in discussions with some of the other sports," Davis said. "Hockey, in our judgment, has a fairly weak system."

The NHL didn't test for steroids until the current season, and the league and union think they're on the right track, with players' association executive director Ted Saskin saying Wednesday: "Our policy will ensure that performance-enhancing substances never become a problem in our sport."

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly took exception to Davis' comment.

"We don't at all agree that the program we have negotiated and implemented is weak. To the contrary, we believe we have a very strong program in a sport that has no experience or history of problems with performance-enhancing drugs," Daly wrote in an e-mail to the AP.

"We're happy to continue to work and cooperate with Congress to address and hopefully satisfy whatever concerns they might have. It would be premature at best to speculate at this time whether we and the NHLPA would be prepared to make changes to our newly bargained program."

NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said the league wouldn't comment.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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