Shortly into Wednesday's congressional hearing on steroids and the NFL, you realized there was only one way to stomach this sham: You had to laugh.
You had to imagine a congressman asking one of the expert witnesses if he knows for sure that the NFL has stamped out steroid use, and the guy responding with, "No, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night."
You had to imagine one congressman finally having the guts to risk losing his Washington Redskins season tickets by cross-examining NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Tagliabue: "OK, I have a confession to make."
Congressman: "You're finally going to come clean about how the NFL's steroid problem is even worse than baseball's?"
Tagliabue: "No, I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to GEICO."
Instead, this was five hours and 56 minutes of funny-sad. What a waste of time. You've seen first-week NFL preseason games that were more meaningful.
Tagliabue and his men might as well have been Bill Belichick's defense toying with rookie Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a road playoff game. Mostly, Tagliabue was a Park Avenue attorney talking circles around a gaggle or giggle of fawning fans masquerading as politicians.
You kept waiting for one of the congressmen to ask Tagliabue for his autograph. You wondered if, after the proceedings, Tagliabue invited all the pols to visit the Redskins locker room after any game next season to meet coach Joe Gibbs and to "see for yourselves that there isn't a single steroid syringe in any locker."
This was a hearing without seeing.
The lone voice of reason spoke late in the day. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member, said: "There's still one thing that puzzles me, and that's the fact that there are a lot of people who are very credible in sports who tell me privately that there's a high amount of steroid use in football.
"When I look at the testing results, it doesn't appear that's the case. It's still nagging at me."
And at me.
And, I hope, at you.
So how could Waxman allow this hearing to take place without the testimony of a single current NFL player who has tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance? Does the NFL wield so much more power on Capitol Hill than Major League Baseball that the NFL managed to keep the essential star witnesses its dirty players out of the national spotlight and consciousness?
Where was former Pro Bowl linebacker Bill Romanowski, under oath? Romanowski, who has been retired for only a season, reportedly tested positive for the designer steroid THG. So did former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield. Where was he?
Why wasn't receiver David Boston, who recently was suspended for using a banned performance-enhancing substance, on the panel? Why weren't any of four Carolina Panthers who according to an investigation of a South Carolina doctor allegedly received steroids from the doctor?
Remember, the NFL's testing program didn't catch these four Panthers or the four Oakland Raiders (including Romanowski and Stubblefield) who were nailed for their alleged THG use. The Raiders came to light in the BALCO investigation.
Congress should have grilled them on how they kept beating the NFL's steroid tests.
This didn't have to be a witch hunt. Romanowski, Stubblefield and Boston are already out there as "witches." How could this hearing have any credibility without these guys being questioned about what's really been going on behind the scenes in the image-conscious NFL in recent seasons?
Former Steelers offensive lineman Steve Courson, the only ex-player who testified, is just too passé too 1970s. It was too easy for the NFL commissioner to dismiss Courson's personal horror stories about steroid abuse as pre-Tagliabue and pre-testing. Heck, steroids weren't even illegal in those days.
Tagliabue sure is lucky his sport hasn't had a Jose Canseco a former star who wrote a detailed, credible book about how he often injected other stars with steroids. Who knows? Maybe David Boston feels that, like Canseco, he has become the NFL's poster-boy scapegoat for steroid abuse. Maybe, under oath, Boston would have gone Canseco on the NFL.
Canseco's book triggered the baseball and football steroid hearings. Only because Canseco directly accused Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, and cast doubt on Sammy Sosa, did Congress invite (and then subpoena) all four to testify. With McGwire's basically pleading the fifth and commissioner Bud Selig pleading incompetently with increasingly irritated congressmen the baseball hearing turned into all-time memorable television.
Tagliabue is lucky his sport though even more popular than baseball doesn't have sacred home-run records that can be tainted by juiced-up sluggers. Emmitt Smith didn't duck and dart under a steroid cloud when he broke Walter Payton's career rushing record. No one thought Peyton Manning ingested more than Wheaties before he broke Dan Marino's single-season touchdown record.
That's partly because those records aren't nearly as magical as Roger Maris' 61 homers, then McGwire's 70, then Barry Bonds' 73. But it's certainly possible that the players who blocked for Smith and Manning might not have been clean. Wouldn't that taint those records?
Several congressmen voiced amazement by how much national attention the baseball hearing triggered. So the House Committee on Government Reform couldn't very well ignore the NFL. After all, the original stated goal of these hearings was to send a message to teenage steroid abusers.
Most kids aren't using steroids to play baseball. Most are using them to excel in football.
Yet the NFL had time to prepare Selig & Co. basically wrote a how-not-to-testify manual and to successfully lobby for no contemporary players. Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) says today's players could be asked to a subsequent hearing. But I'll believe it when I see it.
After all, Davis and his cohorts let Tagliabue get away with saying: "All the literature about steroids what does it do? It reduces body fat. It makes athletes lean and sculpted. Our players are exhibiting none of these characteristics. They have high body fat. They tend to be the antithesis of the lean, sculpted athlete."
Though none of his inquisitors seemed to comprehend this, Tagliabue was speaking only about offensive linemen, who mostly prevail with athletic girth. Then again, offensive lineman Todd Steussie was one of the Panthers who, according to the federal probe, allegedly received steroid prescriptions from the South Carolina doctor.
And quarterback Jim Miller, who fought to keep his weight down when he played for the Chicago Bears, tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. What position in baseball has used steroids at least as much as sluggers? According to some baseball insiders, the answer is: pitchers.
Otherwise, just about every other position in the NFL is stocked with sculpted players who have low body fat. Even punter Todd Sauerbrun is one of the Panthers who allegedly received steroids.
What's another primary benefit of steroids? Recovering from injury. What are all NFL players constantly doing? Recovering from nagging or serious injuries.
Yes, the NFL's testing is tougher than baseball's, and its penalties are stiffer. But who runs the NFL's testing program? The NFL. How many stars tested positive without the public's knowing about it? Who knows?
The same questions can be asked about baseball, which continues to control its testing program. Isn't it odd that the only announced big leaguer who has violated baseball's substance-abuse policy is somebody named Alex Sanchez who plays for the Tampa Day Devil Rays? Other than that, the only disclosed violators are minor leaguers.
That's why Tagliabue lost some of his cool only once during his testimony. That's when it was suggested that the World Doping Agency should take over testing in all of America's professional sports.
Tagliabue's voice rose as he played the patriotism card.
"I think America can solve American problems better than anyone else in the world," he said. "...I think if we have to start outsourcing or off-shoring our drug programs, we're in trouble."
I think we're in trouble if we don't. Besides, WADA isn't exactly "off-shoring." It's the best in the world.
Without independent, world-class testing, the steroid problems will grow in baseball and the NFL. Neither sport tests for human growth hormone or for many forms of stimulants. Neither seems any more savvy than congressmen about masking agents.
Look, I love the NFL. But I want to trust that it's being played on a level, drug-free field. Now, I doubt that more than ever.
Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.