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Sports figures get more questions about drugs
Scripps Howard News Service


May 19, 2005

Washington - Steroid use by professional athletes "sends a harmful and potentially destructive message to countless young fans," in the view of NBA Commissioner David Stern, and an effort is under way to boost penalties against violators of league drug policies.

But Stern, testifying Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, said the NBA could undertake its own reforms through the usual collective bargaining process, without governmental interference.

"Indeed, a policy that is the product of agreement between management and labor will always be superior to one that is imposed from the outside, as the parties to the agreement will be invested in its success," Stern told lawmakers.

Stern, along with NBA Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter, was called before the committee to discuss pending legislation intended to create a uniform, federally mandated steroids-testing policy in professional sports.

Commissioners and player representatives from other professional associations, including Bud Selig of Major League Baseball, came to discuss a bill sponsored by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the panel chairman. It would require players to undergo random testing at least once a year. The use of banned substances would lead to a two-year suspension for the first violation and lifetime dismissal for the second.

Stearns and other lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats alike - maintained that tough action is needed because of the influence professional athletes have on children, who might emulate players' drug use to further their own athletic aspirations. Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill., cited a University of Michigan study that found steroid use among high-school seniors jumped 54 percent from 1996 to 2003.

"Young athletes are seeing professional athletes make millions of dollars off of their 'juiced-up' abilities and they know that use is rewarded," Schakowsky said in a statement that was repeated, in one form or another, by most other subcommittee members. "These young athletes are taking steroids to meet physical performance standards that would be impossible without artificial augmentation."

Stern and most of the others called to testify questioned the need for federal legislation. But he expressed a desire to toughen current NBA rules by doubling the suspension period for first-time offenders to 10 games and banning those who fail the test for a third time.

"The NBA would prefer to manage our own drug-testing program rather than having this task performed by some third party," Stern said. "The NBA has been testing its players for drugs since 1983. We have substantial experience in this area, are highly knowledgeable about the schedules and habits of our players and are confident in the integrity of our processes and methods."

Drawing the most scrutiny was Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Association. He had several objections to the Stearns bill, including concerns about potential violations of Fourth Amendment prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Fehr maintained that the anti-steroid policy baseball instituted this year, which includes mandatory testing and a 10-day suspension for first-time violators, shows evidence it is working and said that Congress would be wise to steer clear of the collective-bargaining process. He warned that the "one size fits all approach" outlined by the legislation isn't the best approach, and added that the two-year suspension for first-time offenders is "effectively career-ending."

But the lawmakers weren't impressed with Fehr's claims. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which includes the subcommittee holding the hearing, expressed resolve in getting the bill through. He expressed doubt that professional sports can effectively police itself.

"Nobody thinks athletes should use illegal steroids," Barton said. "Nearly everybody thinks athletes can be role models. So how in the world did we get in the position where steroids were swallowed like M&Ms and adults winked at each other when baseball players started growing arms as big as tree trunks?"

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., was particularly dismissive of Fehr, telling him, "You may be one of the few people in the world who think this (current MLB policy) is tough enough."

Selig, on the other hand, was greeted warmly by the committee, just two months after another congressional panel slammed him for failing to implement an effective anti-steroid policy.

The baseball commissioner said he is seeking to increase penalties - calling for a 50-game suspension for first-time offenders - and even indicated he would not be all that upset by federal intervention.

Current policy appears to be working, Selig noted, but issues involving the integrity of the game and public confidence "transcend that, and to address those issues we have to toughen the penalties."

"My job as commissioner of baseball is anything that impugns our integrity we must deal with and deal with immediately," he said.


Contact Bill Straub at straubb(at)

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