Senate panel seeks ephedra hearings

Its use by pro athletes, O's death catch attention of consumer affairs


February 28, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan helped push Major League Baseball toward a program to discourage the use of anabolic steroids last summer. Now, he's focusing on ephedrine.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Consumer Affairs Subcommittee that oversees professional sports recently called for hearings to examine the widespread use of ephedrine-based products among professional athletes.

If Dorgan has his way, baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball Players Association director Donald Fehr will be summoned to Washington to explain why there are no major-league restrictions on the herbal stimulant and weight-loss aid that apparently contributed to the heatstroke death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.

"It's tragic to see a young athlete give his life to these substances," Dorgan said yesterday. "Apparently, that's what happened here."

Dorgan, who chaired a similar hearing on steroid abuse last June after revelations by former baseball stars Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco suggested that baseball might be rife with illegal performance-enhancing drugs, has made the request for a hearing to new committee chairman John McCain. No date has been set, but McCain, an Arizona Republican, took part in the steroid hearing and is expected to go along with an ephedrine probe.

It is possible that Major League Baseball will reach a compromise with the players union to restrict the use of ephedrine and make a Senate hearing less urgent, but the agreement reached during baseball's labor talks to address the troublesome steroid controversy has created skepticism that the sport can effectively police itself when it comes to substance abuse.

"When I originally looked at the agreement, I thought it was a step forward because baseball was so far behind other sports in this area," Dorgan said. "Clearly, it wasn't enough."

The attempt to control the use of ephedrine figures to be even more difficult, since products like the one used by Bechler are legal and sold over the counter. The Food and Drug Administration is awaiting a research study from the Rand Corp. that could provide a rationale for federal action, but that isn't going to happen overnight.

In the meantime, the only way that baseball's drug policy can be changed is through negotiations with the union.

"I don't see how it should be a subject of collective bargaining whether to use steroids or ephedrine," Dorgan said. "We had testimony from a pediatrician during the first hearing who talked about young kids in the seventh and eighth grade taking those substances because they look up to these athletes. I think it was demonstrated during that hearing that this should not be about collective bargaining. You just ban it, and the evidence is what happened to this fine young man [Bechler]."

Major League Baseball informed teams this week that ephedrine has been added to the list of restricted substances contained in the sport's minor-league drug policy. Some teams, including the Orioles, already had prohibited the use of it in their farm systems.

Though baseball officials suggested that ephedrine be included in the new major-league drug policy that was hammered out in labor talks late last summer, the issue obviously wasn't urgent enough to prompt immediate action to ban it at the minor-league level, even though management had unilateral authority to do so at any time.

Major League Baseball spokesman Rich Levin explained that the minor-league drug policy is routinely renewed at this time each year and the Bechler tragedy refocused attention on the need to amend it.

Even if the change had been made during the summer, it would not have affected Bechler because he was on the Orioles' 40-man roster, and he was called up to the major leagues about the time the labor negotiations were coming to a head.

Dorgan said he took an interest in the steroid and supplement issue last summer because he is a baseball fan who is concerned about the integrity of the sport and the influence professional athletes have on youth.

"I've been a big baseball fan all my life," he said. "I read the story in Sports Illustrated with Ken Caminiti. It prompted me to want to hold a hearing and examine this and say, enough is enough. It's a wonderful sport and what's happening to these athletes is a tragedy."

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