WASHINGTON – Baseball must institute a more stringent drug-testing policy, such as the one in place by the NFL (search), or Congress will step in and make changes.
"Your failure to commit to addressing this issue straight on and immediately will motivate this committee to search for legislative remedies," Sen. John McCain warned the baseball players' association Wednesday.
McCain, the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, challenged union head Donald Fehr (search) to make changes. Fehr said he couldn't agree to changes in the collective bargaining agreement.
"I can tell you, and the players you represent, the status quo is not acceptable," said McCain, Arizona Republican. "And we will have to act in some way unless the major league players' union acts in the affirmative and rapid fashion."
The White House on Thursday is expected to endorse legislation criminalizing the use of certain performance-enhancing drugs that currently are available without prescriptions.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush appealed to sports leagues and athletes to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Home runs have been hit at a record pace in the past decade, and players have gotten larger and stronger. Former MVPs Jose Canseco (search) and Ken Caminiti (search) have said the use of steroids was widespread.
The San Francisco Chronicle, quoting information it said was provided to federal investigators, reported last week that steroids were given to Barry Bonds (search), Jason Giambi (search) and Gary Sheffield (search). Bonds, Giambi and Sheffield have denied using steroids.
That report came out of a grand jury investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in San Francisco. Last month, two company executives, along with Bonds' personal trainer and a track coach, were charged with illegally supplying steroids to athletes.
The suspicion that some of the game's greats are using steroids has loomed over spring training, prompting McCain to schedule a hearing and invite Fehr, baseball commissioner Bud Selig (search), NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue (search) and NFL players' union chief Gene Upshaw (search).
Baseball's current labor contract, agreed to in 2002, called for anonymous drug tests last year. Five to 7 percent of those tests came back positive for steroids, a level which triggered testing with penalties this year. But the program has been criticized because players are tested only twice each season - both tests are given within a period of a week - and the penalties are far weaker than those in Olympic sports.
"I believe that the program that we instituted has had some effect," Fehr said.
McCain disagreed, saying baseball has a "legitimacy problem" because of questions about steroid use and the public's perception that cheaters don't get caught by the testing program.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., criticized the union for resisting stronger testing. "The union's wrong here," he said.
Under baseball's policy, a player doesn't face a one-year suspension until failing five tests. The NFL has a year-round random testing program for players and imposes immediate suspensions on those who test positive.
Selig said baseball owners want stronger testing.
"I realize that we have work to do," Selig said. "We need more frequent and year-round testing of players. We need immediate penalties for those caught using illegal substances."
Selig said he hopes to make the sport's policy for players with minor league contracts apply to those with major league contracts: a year-round testing plan, with an immediate 15-game suspension for a first violation.
McCain pointed to Tagliabue and Upshaw as an example of the kind of collaboration he wants baseball to adopt. Tagliabue and Upshaw agreed that a strong policy is in the best interests of the NFL and its players.
Fehr said that baseball players made a "concession" when they agreed to the current testing program. The union opposes random testing on grounds it invades players' privacy, he said.
Selig said baseball supports legislation jointly sponsored by Biden and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would ban over-the-counter sales of androstenedione - a steroidlike supplement that Mark McGwire used in 1998, when he broke the single-season home run mark - and the newly detected steroid THG.
Fehr didn't take a position on the legislation, but said it would be wrong to ban players from taking substances that are legal.
After the hearing, Fehr issued a statement explaining why players should refuse additional tests, as suggested by some reporters.
"Any player is free to go to his own physician and request a test for anything," he said.
"When, however, a player is asked to take a drug test by a third party, particularly a member of the media, there is an inherent element of coercion in the request. Notwithstanding the player's right to say no, he fully understands, as does the reporter making the inquiry, that a refusal will be taken by many as suggesting the player fears the result, even though no such inference fairly should be drawn. In addition, acceding to the request will put pressure on other players to do the same thing."