Lawmakers Upset Over Mixed Signals on Steroids

Thursday’s widely-anticipated Capitol Hill hearings on anabolic steroids (search) in professional baseball left some lawmakers frustrated that proceedings designed to send a stark message about the evils of performance-enhancing drugs instead sent signals that were largely mixed.

One after the other, some of Major League Baseball’s biggest current and past stars told lawmakers that steroids are dangerous and should not be part of sports at any level. Each made moving tributes to the parents of Rob Garibaldi (search) and Taylor Hooten (search), two young scholastic baseball players who committed suicide after taking the drugs.

Medical experts testified about the disfiguring side effects of illegal steroids, and big league record holders offered themselves as national spokesmen for anti-steroid campaigns.

Still, it was dissatisfaction over a proposed major league drug testing plan -- as well as equivocation from pro stars testifying under oath -- that left the hearings without the clear message on the evils of steroids that many lawmakers said they’d hoped for.

“More than just the reputation of baseball is at risk. Our primary focus remains the message that’s being sent to ... children,” says Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who chaired the hearings in the House Government Reform Committee.

“Baseball is dealing aggressively with the usage of steroids in the game,” says Richard A. Alderson, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president.

But Davis and other lawmakers were highly critical of a plan submitted by baseball officials, saying that it was far too lax on enforcement and that it fails to adequately test for several classes of performance enhancing substances.

Players caught using steroids or other drugs under the plan face a 10-day suspension from play or a fine of up $10,000. Several lawmakers decried the penalties, noting that they could allow millionaire players caught using illegal drugs to pay only small monetary fines and not even necessarily see their test results made public.

“The intention of this program is suspension and public notice of suspension,” says Elliot J. Pellman, MD, the medical advisor to the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Facing withering criticism from lawmakers who pointed out that the plan’s language calls for no such notice, Pellman offered to resign from his job if the conditions were not met.

Lawmakers also attacked the plan for failing to include several classes of stimulant drugs, including amphetamines, and for relying on a yet-to-be created urine test to search for evidence of human growth hormone use.

Pellman told committee members that he was “optimistic” that a reliable urine test for the hormone would be ready by the start of the 2006 baseball season.

But Gary I. Wadler, MD, who represents the United States at the World Anti-Doping Agency (search), the group responsible for developing drug testing protocols used by the Olympic Games, denounced Major League Baseball's plan as full of loopholes, including the reliance on urine tests instead of blood tests to find human growth hormone abuse.

“There is absolutely no basis for that optimism,” he said.

Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher who is now a Republican senator from Kentucky, called the league’s drug testing scheme “baby steps.”

The debate left several lawmakers openly frustrated with officials who had lamented illegal drug use but then offered a testing plan that the policy makers said was weak.

“Unless one is unbelievably naive, it is self-evident that basically the new policy is designed to silence the critics, not solve the problem,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif. “I increasingly feel a feeling of the theatre of the absurd unfolding here,” he said.

Mixed Signals From Players

Six current and former baseball stars, all who appeared under congressional subpoena, offered emotional condolences to the parents of the two deceased baseball players.

“My heart goes out to every parent whose son or daughter were victims of steroid use,” Mark McGwire (search), who broke Roger Maris’s single-season home run record in 1998, said while holding back tears.

McGwire was among a handful of players accused of anabolic steroid use in a recently released book authored by retired slugger Jose Canseco. Canseco admitted in the book to using steroids during his career and said that usage of the drug was rampant among professional players.

Several other players, including Baltimore Orioles infielder Raphael Palmiero, made statements denying that they had ever used performance-enhancing substances. Fellow Oriole Sammy Sosa said in a statement, read by his lawyer, Jim Sharp, that he never used “illegal performance-enhancing drugs.”

The statement appeared to avoid the issue of whether Sosa had ever used steroid precursors such as androstenedione, which were first made illegal last year by Congress.

Lawmakers appeared frustrated by McGwire, who refused to answer several questions about possible substance use by professional players in general. “I am not here to talk about the past,” McGwire said when asked if it was widely understood among players that steroids were in common usage during his career.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., also expressed concern that the players’ testimony was sending a mixed message to youth about steroids and asked each player to state for the record whether steroid use by players constitutes cheating. All but McGwire said that it does.

“That’s not for me to determine,” McGwire said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, tells WebMD that the players were not doing enough to make good on their stated aim of discouraging steroid use in teens.

“They said they want to be a spokesman. Well, that’s nice. I think the bottom line is what are you actually going to do to help,” he says.

McHenry appeared to chastise McGwire for refusing to state, as other players did, whether he ever used legal or illegal performance-enhancing substances.

“The American people are figuring out who is willing to say that and who isn’t,” he said.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Richard A. Alderson, executive vice president, Major League Baseball. Elliot J. Pellman, MD, medical advisor to the commissioner of Major League Baseball. Gary I. Wadler, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine, New York University. Sen. Jim Bunning, (R-Ky.). Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) Raphael Palmiero, Baltimore Orioles. Sammy Sosa, Baltimore Orioles. Mark McGwire, former player, St. Louis Cardinals. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C). Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)