Rep. accuses union of acting slower than league

Updated: March 22, 2004, 5:37 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee accused the baseball players' association of not responding as quickly as owners to calls for tougher steroid testing.

"I don't think that the players' union has gotten the message, but they're getting it," Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said last week. "If somebody keels over dead because of an overdose, it doesn't do the players any good, because dead players don't pay union dues."

Before his Congressional testimony earlier this month, baseball commissioner Bud Selig asked the players' association to discuss steroids, and several lawmakers have said baseball's plan needs more frequent testing and tougher penalties for positive tests.

Selig would like to put a policy in place similar to the one for players with minor league contracts. The players' association has not yet responded.

Because there is an agreement in place through December 2006, the union is not under an obligation to bargain until then.

Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, said Selig has to take a tougher stand with the union.

"He can't just tiptoe around the tulips like he's done for so many years as commissioner," Miller said.

John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, threatened at the March 10 hearing to enact legislation to force stronger steroid testing policy.

Under baseball's policy, a player faces only counseling for a first offense, and doesn't face a one-year suspension until failing five tests. Selig wants to tighten that so that a first offense draws a 15-day suspension, and a third offense results in a one-year suspension.

But because of federal labor laws and baseball's labor contract, Selig does not appear to have power to act unilaterally.

"The congressional hearing represented part of a growing outcry and momentum of outrage at what's going on," said Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, who has written about sports and public policy. "I don't think (Selig's letter) has very much to do with a threat of legislation, but it does have to do with building upon the public outcry and momentum against the use of steroids."

Union spokesman Greg Bouris declined to comment.

President Bush urged action in his State of the Union address, and his Food and Drug Administration this month banned sales of androstenedione, a steroid precursor that Mark McGwire used in 1998, when he broke the single-season home run record.

Bills pending in both houses of Congress would ban a host of such precursors, which act like steroids.

Sensenbrenner, the Judiciary Committee chairman, this year sponsored the House bill banning steroid precursors, giving the issue new life after similar legislation failed to gain approval in the previous session of Congress.

But he disagreed with McCain's threat of legislative action to force baseball players to agree to tougher steroid testing.

"The concern that I have with Senator McCain's approach is that it has politicians rewrite collective baseball agreements," Sensenbrenner said. "Congress can rewrite contracts. But I think the National Labor Relations Act works pretty well, and we in Congress should not be the super-arbiters of collective bargaining disputes."

McCain responded in a statement: "I have repeatedly stated that legislative action would be the last resort, but that the status quo is unacceptable. I continue to hope that the parties involved will resolve this problem."

The increased government scrutiny comes amid growing suspicion of steroid use among baseball players. A federal grand jury in California has indicted four men on charges of illegally distributing steroids, including the personal trainer of Barry Bonds.

The trainer, Greg Anderson, pleaded innocent. Bonds has denied using illegal steroids.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press