Q&A: Congress, Steroids and Baseball

Updated: March 14, 2005, 10:23 PM ET
ESPN.com

Congress has questions. Congress wants answers.

And while we'll have to wait for the scheduled March 17 hearing of the House Government Reform Committee for some of baseball's biggest names -- including Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who were among the seven players issued subpoenas -- to explain themselves on the issue of steroid use, we asked ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney and ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack to address 15 of the most frequently asked questions about the congressional probe.

The following is an edited version of some of the more pressing questions and answers raised during Thursday's appearances by Stark and Cossack in SportsNation's The Show, as well as Olney's Insider Weblog.

Q: What is the Government Reform Committee's authority, and what is it trying to accomplish?

Mark McGwire
GettyMark McGwire hasn't announced his decision on whether he'll appear at the March 17 hearing on steroids.

Cossack: Oversight is a committee of Congress that reviews things such as Enron and business and events and corporations that are within the federal jurisdiction -- baseball is involved in interstate commerce so it falls in this category. Oversight makes sure these things are running properly and now, there is obviously a need to see if new regulations must be imposed on MLB to keep those operations running properly.

Q: Is this merely grandstanding on the part of the committee?

Cossack: I think that the job of Congress is to review industries. One thing that may come out of this is recommended legislation for punishment that would induce a more serious stance. Remember, aside from all the hype and talk baseball has never really done anything about the usage. It's no accident that the House committee is beginning its hearings just as another baseball season arrives. By subpoenaing the likes of Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi and Sammy Sosa, the committee knows that the hearings will be highly publicized in the media. Its intention is to send a message that steroid use cannot be tolerated in sports, while informing the public -- especially young athletes -- of the health problems brought on by their use.

Q: Will any of the players subpoenaed to appear before the committee seek, or be granted, immunity?

Cossack: I think that certainly if players testify, they will ask for immunity from federal prosecution. That's the only immunity that they can get -- to be protected from prosecution. If the individual baseball clubs wanted to try and void their contracts, sure, what they say before the committee could be used.

Q: What benefit, if any, could come from the congressional hearings? And should Barry Bonds have been summoned?

Cossack: Baseball has brought a lot of what's going on upon itself. Baseball should have taken steps a long time ago to police itself and the use of drugs by players in a more intense method. So, if baseball would have done what it is just now starting to do five or 10 years ago, these hearings would never have been held. I hope what comes out of this is an awareness of how bad steroid use is and the harm that it can bring to individuals and organizations and society. As for Bonds, yes, he should probably be there.

Q: Why, then, isn't Bonds included among those asked to appear?

Stark: That's a question I wish I could answer. I don't find any of the answers coming out of Congress so far [that Bonds' appearance would simply be too distracting, for example] to be particularly credible. So I have to believe that because Barry is going to be such a focus of the BALCO trial, the prosecutors have asked that he not testify. But I have no way of knowing if that's correct.

Q: Do we, as baseball fans, deserve an explanation from Congress as to how they decided on the list of people to invite to testify?

Stark: We deserve an explanation of all kinds of things related to this hearing. Are they doing this just based on Jose Canseco's book? What's the real reason Bonds isn't being subpoenaed? This is just an easy way for a bunch of congressmen and congresswomen to pontificate on a safe issue that has nothing to do with their committee. To me, it serves no other useful purpose -- other than to attract record ratings for C-SPAN. One of my biggest problems with this whole affair is that Congress won't be able to prove anything about much of anything. There was no testing whatsoever until 2003, so there's zero evidence to back up anything anybody claims in this hearing. So forget all that talk about perjury charges to people who lie. How will anyone ever know who did and who didn't?

Q: If MLB was truly interested in eliminating steroid use among its players, why would it stand in opposition to the Congressional hearings?

Cossack: Well, you know, Stan Brand [a lawyer for the baseball commissioner's office] has to represent his client. This is baseball's biggest nightmare. First of all, when have you ever seen the players' union and MLB in agreement? Stan is in the unusual position of representing both of these entities, these arch-nemesis types. This interrogation will only hurt the game and only cause embarrassment to the league for not doing anything sooner, so that's why they will stand in opposition. Baseball wants to go forward and forget the past -- the past that Congress wants to investigate. Baseball had to know about this -- look at the home-run tally over the years. Remember when people thought this production was because the baseball was juiced? But, all along, the fans loved it and so did baseball. It's what makes the money and draws the crowds.

Q: What is MLB's primary objection?

Stark: MLB is opposing this on several fronts. On a technical level, it's in a sticky position if it agrees to turn over the results of steroid testing in 2003 and 2004, because the players agreed to testing in the first place only under the stipulation that no names would be attached or revealed -- except, in the 2004 testing, if someone tested positive twice. So turning over those results now would be similar to leaking grand-jury testimony, which is supposed to be confidential. The rules aren't supposed to change after the fact. But on a philosophical level, MLB looks at these hearings like this: Congress wanted the sport to negotiate a tougher testing and punishment policy. Both sides admitted that government pressure was a factor in motivating them to do that, finally. After they announced the new steroid policy, the people in Congress said they were satisfied. Then all of a sudden, Canseco writes a book and they need to hold hearings? Testing will clean up the sport. Asking McGwire what he took in 1998 doesn't clean up anything.

Q: Is baseball fearful of putting an even larger stain on the game?

Stark: How could it not be fearful? I find it hard to imagine that McGwire will admit to using anything other than Andro. But say he does. Say he says he used steroids, even unknowingly, the year in which he hit 70 homers. That places a definitive mushroom cloud over one of the most celebrated seasons in history -- and the breaking of the most romantic record in sports, the single-season home-run record. That's a stain baseball couldn't possibly erase, even if it tried. And if Barry Bonds were to admit something similar during BALCO testimony, it would have the same effect. Almost nothing good can come of this for baseball, even if the whole hearing is just a glorified publicity stunt.

Q: Does baseball stand a chance in blocking the hearings from taking place?

Cossack: Well, the Red Sox won the World Series after they were down 0-3 to the Yankees last year. Did the Sox have a chance? Sure, they had a chance. Did anybody think they could do it? Baseball has a chance in blocking the committee's hearings ... but it is certainly not a good chance.

Q: Should commissioner Bud Selig be forced to appear?

Olney: If the hearing is actually held (and we have our doubts, based on some of the back-channel work being done on behalf of MLB), Selig needs to be there. He's been touting the new testing system to reporters for weeks, talking about how this is a landmark for the game. But now, with a chance to speak on national television about the direction of baseball, he will be silent? He's the leader of the sport and he should be there.

Q: Since MLB has an antitrust exemption, isn't it shielded from federal oversight?

Cossack: It's shielded from having to comply with the antitrust laws, but certainly not from federal oversight. And Congress could decide now to take away that anti-trust shield from baseball. No other professional sport has that shield and many people have wondered for a long time why baseball is an exception. I think what could happen is that eventually some kind of agreement is hammered out between MLB and Congress. They may agree to limit some of the questions that will be asked. Another solution is that baseball goes to a judge and asks to have the subpoenas quashed. The judge, I would think, would rule against them and baseball players will have to testify, and MLB will just have to turn over its records.

Q: Does a Congressional hearing help or hinder either the prosecution or defense in the BALCO trial, as MLB officials say they believe?

Cossack: Well, the only witness that I know of that has been subpoenaed before the Congressional committee is Jason Giambi, and his testimony is already pretty well known. I think this will have no impact, and the idea that it will help or hinder is just a red herring that has been put out there by Major League Baseball.

Q: If Congress was truly interested in seeing steroids eliminated from sports, why aren't Olympians and NFL players included on the list of athletes called to testify?

Cossack: I think part of this is that baseball has received the most publicity -- and it's no accident -- at the same time that baseball 2005 is about to begin. Sure, football players and boxers and other athletes should be investigated. I don't think Congress is out to indict anybody. They just want to shine the light, and they are doing it as it coincides with the kickoff of baseball season, and these huge guys who hit home runs.

Q: Isn't everyone just tired of this topic? Can't we move on?

Olney: The powers that be in baseball, from the commissioner to Bonds, want us to turn the page, move on, shift into the next news cycle and get away from steroids. "We're cleaning it up," they say. "Trust the system," they tell us. The problem with that is that we're getting such incomplete truths about what happened in the past, about what caused this problem in the first place. Until there is total openness and accountability about how this issue developed, why should anyone be confident that the institution of baseball -- from the leading members of management to the players' union -- is going to demand accountability and become dedicated to cleaning up steroids?