WASHINGTON – For the last two days,teamwork has been the theme on Capitol Hill,as the commissioners from Major League Baseball,Major League Soccer,National Hockey League,National Basketball Association and National Football League united to fight mandatory government drug testing in all American professional sports.
“Why in the world did we ever get into a situation where steroids apparently were swallowed like M&Ms,and adults winked at each other when baseball players started growing arms as big as tree trunks?” asked Texas Republican Joe Barton,chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Under the proposed Drug Free Sports Act,a government-selected independent testing agency would test all American professional athletes for performance-enhancing drugs. Every professional athlete would be held to the same standards and the same penalties for a positive test. A first-time offender would serve a mandatory two-year suspension. The bill provides an appeals process.
“The Drug Free Sports Act would establish a baseline policy for performance-enhancing drugs to which professional sports leagues must adhere – unless they adopt a stronger policy on their own,” Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky,D-Ill.,said.
Bud Selig,commissioner of Major League Baseball,and David Stern,commissioner of the National Basketball Association,argued their leagues could adopt tougher drug testing policies through collective bargaining with their players associations. But each said he could support government-controlled drug testing if changes are made to the bill.
“Major League Baseball has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate a willingness to deal with the issues of performance-enhancing substances without the need for federal legislation,” Selig said. “At the same time,however,I would not resist federal legislation if Congress continues to believe that a uniform standard for all sports is necessary. … I would like to stress,however,that I believe that there are important differences among the various professional sports and between professional sports and the Olympics that may make private regulation more effective and appropriate.”
Stern added,“It is my belief that the NBA can maintain a sound drug testing policy for steroids and performance-enhancing substances through collective bargaining with the Players Association. If Congress,nonetheless,sees fit to establish minimum standards for such a program,we suggest that they be flexible enough to account for characteristics that distinguish one professional sport from another,and reasonable with respect to penalties.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that,in hockey,players would not benefit from taking performance-enhancing substances because the sport demands speed and agility,not bulk. The NHL has never tested for steroids and cancelled its season this year because it does not have a collective bargaining agreement. However,random testing and discipline is a part of the negotiations that Bettman hopes will result in a new agreement in time for next season.
Donald P. Garber,commissioner of Major League Soccer,opposed a “one size fits all” drug testing policy. Garber's stance is based on the league's “zero tolerance policy,” agreed on when the league was created in 1996.
“The initial policy stemmed from MLS's desire to ensure the integrity of our game and the safety of our athletes,to present a positive image to the American sports fan and to hold its players up as positive role models to the nation's youth,” Garber said.
MLS and the player's association recently agreed to toughen the policy by adopting the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances. Players are subject to year-round random testing,and the commissioner may terminate a player's contract after one offense.
“Although the idea of creating universal drug testing standards for all U.S. professional sports is commendable,MLS believes that this issue is more appropriately managed through a league-specific program created in collaboration with the players during the collective bargaining process,” Garber said.
The subcommittee reconvened Thursday with testimony from Paul Tagliabue,commissioner of the National Football League,and Gene Upshaw,chairman of the NFL Players Association. Committee members commended the NFL for its policy of extensive random testing. Despite that, Tagliabue called the bill's punishments “draconian” and said it “seems to have disadvantages that outweigh the advantages.”
Just down the hall,House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis,R-Va.,opened a hearing focusing on the NBA.
This committee voiced concerns on the “large gap” between testing dates for veteran NBA players. Under the current agreement,rookies are tested randomly four times over the year. Veterans,however,are tested just once during training camp,although they can be tested again for “reasonable cause.”
“It is,in my opinion,rather pathetic,” Rep. Stephen Lynch,D-Mass.,said.
Lynch asked Billy Hunter,executive director of the NBA Players Association,if the November fight between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons that spilled into the stands,was reasonable cause because one side effect of steroids is increased violent behavior.
That comment lead to a heated exchange between Lynch,Stern and Hunter. Hunter called Lynch’s question “a quantum leap.”
“I’m not saying it was caused by steroid use. I’m saying you don’t know,” Lynch said.
“On behalf of the players of the National Basketball Association,I would like to say that the guilt that you seek to attribute to them on the basis of this policy is ill-taken and very unfair,” Stern said. “It’s a free country,and I would just like to disagree with your approach,that’s all.”
The two committees expect to debate language in the bills in June.