WASHINGTON – The NFL is tripling the number of offseason drug tests (search) each player can face, a policy change made public on the eve of Wednesday's hearing before congressmen who are already drafting legislation on steroids in sports.
Leaders of the House Government Reform Committee, which subpoenaed baseball stars and officials to testify 11/2 months ago, are working with Sen. John McCain (search) to draw up law establishing standard steroid policies for U.S. professional sports, said David Marin, spokesman for chairman Tom Davis (search) of Virginia.
"In calling for uniform standards, it will address all elements of a testing program: It will address frequency of testing, it will address a list of substances tested for, and it will address penalties," Marin said Tuesday.
The NFL's approach to its Capitol Hill visit is quite different from that of Major League Baseball (search), which was compelled to appear by subpoenas — and was met with withering criticism.
Instead, football officials accepted invitations to testify, and they'll arrive armed with recent policy changes strengthening their drug policy. For one, players now will be subject to a maximum of six random drug tests during each offseason, up from two, NFL spokesman Joe Browne said Tuesday.
"Obviously, the dynamic tomorrow is a little different than what we encountered at the MLB hearing. Baseball treated our inquiry as a nuisance," Marin said. "In contrast, both the NFL and its players association have been cooperative and responsive. But that doesn't mean members won't have questions about the details of their policy."
The league and union also recently agreed to add new substances to the list of banned performance enhancers; to put in writing previously agreed-to policies to test for designer steroids; and to lower the testosterone ratio threshold.
"For two decades, the NFL has had very strong programs in place to rid its locker rooms of performance-enhancing drugs," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in remarks prepared for his testimony Wednesday and released by the league Tuesday. "We have not had all the answers, but we have worked with leading institutions and top scientists to seek to stay ahead of an ever-changing curve."
Tagliabue and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw are among 10 witnesses scheduled to appear at the second hearing, including one former player, Steve Courson, an offensive lineman for the Steelers and Buccaneers from 1978-85 who has spoken out against steroid use since retiring.
"Annually, we review our policy, and if there are changes to keep up with science, we do it," Upshaw said. "This is no reaction whatsoever to appearing before this committee."
Wednesday's hearing is a follow-up to last month's session in which lawmakers questioned such stars as Mark McGwire (search), Sammy Sosa (search) and Jose Canseco (search) about steroids in baseball and criticized commissioner Bud Selig and union officials for not being more aggressive in addressing the issue.
The committee's interest in the NFL increased when CBS-TV reported that Carolina Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun and center Jeff Mitchell and former offensive lineman Todd Steussie filled testosterone cream prescriptions during the 2003 season, when the team went to the Super Bowl. In addition to the cream, which is banned by the NFL, Sauerbrun also reportedly obtained syringes and the injectable steroid Stanozolol, which is banned by the league.
"There have been a lot of stories coming out recently that players have been using steroids and just not getting caught," said committee member Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. "The NFL has had a policy for years, so kudos to football. The questions is: Is it effective?"
The NFL began testing 15 years ago and since has suspended 54 players for four games at a time for testing positive. The league's policy was pointed to as a paragon by the House panel when it grilled baseball about a steroid program that only this season instituted 10-day penalties for first-time offenders.
Marin said "people with knowledge of NFL personnel" told committee investigators "steroid use is commonplace in the NFL. So the question becomes: One, is that true? And two, if it is true, how is an apparently solid policy failing?"
If McCain, Davis and the Government Reform Committee's ranking Democrat — Henry Waxman (search) of California — do produce a bill, it wouldn't be the first on the topic. Florida Republican Cliff Stearns, chairman of the House Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee, introduced the Drug Free Sports Act on Tuesday, and his panel will hold a hearing May 5.
"There is every reason to believe that most major sports have athletes using illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs," Stearns said.
Stearns' bill would have the Commerce Secretary oversee drug-testing rules and calls for a two-year suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second. Leagues that don't comply would be fined at least $5 million.
Any such bill would face an uphill fight in a Republican-controlled Congress, given its sweeping nature and the element of government dictating how private enterprise does business.