WASHINGTON – The commissioners of pro baseball, basketball and hockey told Congress on Wednesday they want to toughen their steroid (search) policies, drawing praise from lawmakers intent on legislating standardized drug-testing across U.S. professional sports.
In an unusual gathering of some of the most powerful people in American sports, the heads of management and unions from that trio of leagues plus Major League Soccer testified before the House Commerce trade and consumer protection subcommittee about the proposed Drug Free Sports Act.
The bill's strongest advocate appeared to be baseball commissioner Bud Selig (search). His sport's steroids program drew strong criticism from lawmakers at a March 17 hearing held by the House Government Reform Committee, which is carrying out a separate inquiry.
As subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns (search), R-Fla., put it: "Commissioner Selig has come out in support of the bill, and that might be out of frustration."
Since his earlier trip to Capitol Hill, Selig asked Donald Fehr, Major League Baseball Players Association's executive director, to agree to increase penalties for positive tests — including a lifetime suspension for a third offense — and ban amphetamines.
"I'm very comfortable telling you today that my program will rid the sport of steroids," Selig said outside the wood-paneled hearing room. "I spent a lot of time talking to trainers, doctors, general managers, managers, players. I've devoted my life to this now."
Several lawmakers lauded Selig during the five-hour session, reserving their toughest questions for Fehr and NBA union head Billy Hunter.
"Mr. Selig, you've come a long way," said Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican.
A bipartisan bill sponsored by Stearns and co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Gene Green of Texas calls for a two-year suspension for a first steroid offense and a lifetime ban for a second.
Not surprisingly, nearly all the witnesses objected to various sections of that bill.
"A 'one-size-fits-all' policy could lead to a variety of unintended consequences," said MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who can fire a player after one positive test.
After the hearing, Stearns acknowledged the penalty and appeals-process portions of his legislation "might have to be tailored for each of the sports."
Lawmakers began the recent wave of hearings by focusing on baseball after a San Francisco grand jury investigation into an alleged steroid-distribution ring and retired slugger Jose Canseco's book, "Juiced," in which he claimed steroid use was widespread in baseball.
Now other sports are moving to tighten their testing and increase penalties in the face of congressional scrutiny.
NBA Commissioner David Stern told the committee he wants to kick players out of the league for a third failed steroid test and double the punishment for a first offense to 10 games. Stern also wants to increase the number of random tests for all players to four per season (only rookies face that many now).
"We fully expect ... to start next season with a drug program that is far more comprehensive. We support Congress' involvement here," Stern said, although he did caution: "A policy that is the product of agreement between management and labor will always be superior to one that is imposed from the outside."
The NHL doesn't test for performance-enhancing substances, but Commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Bob Goodenow told lawmakers they plan to put random testing and discipline in a new collective bargaining agreement.
Fehr told lawmakers that collective bargaining was the appropriate way to deal with employment issues, "even matters as controversial and politically volatile as random suspicionless employee drug testing." He said the legislation, if enacted, might call for an unconstitutional government-mandated search without probable cause, which would violate the Fourth Amendment.
Several witnesses called the proposed legislation's penalties too harsh, with Fehr saying: "A two-year suspension for a first offense would, as a practical matter, end the player's career in the vast majority of circumstances."