By Margaret Talev
March 16, 2005
But on the eve of their much-hyped hearings into steroid abuse in Major League Baseball, the two congressmen leading the charge for federal intervention, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis and the committee's ranking minority member, Henry Waxman, are finding public opinion and the news cycle increasingly on their side.
As a result, political analysts say, Davis, a moderate Virginia Republican and longtime baseball fan with his eye on a future bid for House leadership or the Senate, and Waxman, a veteran liberal Democrat from California with a long record of high-profile investigations into industrial pollution, the tobacco industry and the war in Iraq, stand more to gain than to lose from pressuring baseball to clean up its act - even if they ultimately do little more than embarrass the sport.
Davis and Waxman are benefiting partly from a perception that baseball officials looked the other way for too long as players' bodies changed shape in plain view and record books were shattered. President Bush singled out steroid use in baseball and other sports in his 2004 State of the Union address (although he called on the sport, not Congress, to act, and the White House seems to be keeping a distance from this week's hearings). And a new book by former player Jose Canseco alleging widespread steroid use has spurred some fan outrage.
The congressmen also are casting players' abuses as a pathology infecting America's youth. Public health officials cite growing concerns about teen steroid use and the proliferation of legal but largely unregulated nutritional supplements promising more muscles and less fat. Rare but heartbreaking accounts of steroid-related athlete suicides have parents horrified, including the recently death of a Vacaville, Calif., teen whose parents say he experienced withdrawal symptoms that included depression when he quit juicing. Meanwhile, a series of corporate cheating scandals over the last five years has left many Americans disillusioned about institutional honesty.
"There's obviously a sense, and I think this has been growing from a lot of Americans, that our country seems to be headed on the wrong track, that institutions that were supposed to be as all-American as apple pie aren't as pure as they were supposed to be," said Amy Walter, who monitors Congress as House editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
"Arthur Anderson. Enron. Every day it seemed another corporation was playing with the books. The scandal within the Catholic Church. We joke about Martha Stewart going to jail, but she was this icon, this all-American symbol caught up in the greed of the late 20th and early 21st century," she said.
"This baseball steroid thing is part of it, that there are the people in this country that play by the rules, and the people who cheat and seem to get ahead," Walter said. "I think that is the backdrop to this, more than 'Let's just pick on baseball for baseball's sake.' "
Under pressure from Congress this week, baseball officials turned over scores of documents showing at least some results from steroid tests, and Commissioner Bud Selig has agreed to testify rather than send a spokesman in his place. Lawyers for players involved in criminal probes still hope to get their clients excused from this week's media circus, but several former and current players have agreed to testify.
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a Hall of Fame pitcher, said the federal government should consider taking away the antitrust exemption that lets professional baseball operate as a monopoly if the organization doesn't beef up penalties for players who get caught. Experts say Congress is unlikely to move ahead with such a threat, however. Major League Baseball recently did tighten its testing and penalties, although they remain weaker than in other sports, including football.
A Gallup poll conducted last December found 86 percent of baseball fans wanted tougher steroid testing, and 59 percent said they would support Congress getting involved if the players' union didn't raise its own standards. Fans polled also estimated widespread juicing in the sport with perhaps one-third of professional players using steroids in the previous five seasons. That survey followed reports of leaked grand jury testimony indicating steroid use by star players Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds.
Carroll Dougherty, editor of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said that, as an isolated practice, steroid abuse by professional athletes "ranks pretty far down there" in public opinion surveys compared with Americans' top concerns.
"You get defending the country against terrorism, followed by the economy, health care, Social Security, education, things like that."
But if steroid use is recast in a broader context, Dougherty said, people are likely to respond differently.
"If you put it in the context of stopping a problem that could affect young people, you're not just addressing whether a record is tainted, but you're addressing something that could have a public health effect."
That's just what Waxman did when he asked Davis to call hearings on the matter. He cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting a surge in teen steroid use. One in 45 high school students said they had ever used illegal steroids in 1993. A decade later, that figure had surged to one in 16 high school students.