WASHINGTON - Baseball players union chief Donald Fehr found himself virtually alone yesterday in rejecting calls by lawmakers and the commissioner to dramatically toughen the sport's steroid use penalties, an action Fehr said could ruin players' careers.
Publicly outlining his opposition for the first time, Fehr said the current steroid program, which commissioner Bud Selig and many members of Congress want rewritten, is working and that legislation suspending players two years for a first violation raises constitutional questions and is "far too severe."
Fehr's opposition - presented at a congressional hearing attended by the commissioners and union representatives of baseball, football, hockey and Major League Soccer - is a formidable obstacle because baseball needs the union's blessing to impose policy changes.
"It seems you may be one of the few people in the world who thinks baseball's current policy is tough enough," Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn told Fehr.
Fehr's defense of the current system, in which first-time violators are suspended 10 days, could accelerate efforts by members of Congress to override baseball's collective bargaining agreement and impose a single steroid testing standard for all professional sports.
Florida Republican Cliff Stearns, who chaired yesterday's hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, argued on behalf of his bill requiring major sports leagues to adopt the steroid testing and punishment standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency. That would mean a two-year suspension for the first violation and a lifetime ban for a second infraction.
Without such a uniform approach, Stearns said sports leagues risk being "overwhelmed" by "better sports through chemistry" schemes that could include designer steroids and masking agents. He said his aim was to prevent such cheating that sets bad examples for youths.
But the commissioners and union leaders of the NBA, NHL and MLS - while echoing Stearns' condemnation of illegal performance boosters - all said anti-steroid policies were best left to the leagues themselves. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who is scheduled to appear before the panel today, has also argued in the past against having Congress dictate the rules.
Said NBA commissioner David Stern yesterday: "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 commissioners' testimony notwithstanding, Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said he expects the committee to approve Stearns' bill and send it to the House floor. "In a perfect world, I'd rather this be done in collective bargaining," Barton said. "I think we've gone too long basically asking the marketplace to do it. I am really going to try to get a federal bill."
Selig said he would not resist such a bill, but that regulation by the sports themselves seemed more appropriate.
Fehr said bluntly that Stearns' approach was too harsh. "A two-year suspension for a first offense would, as a practical matter, end the player's career in the vast majority of circumstances," the union chief said.
Selig and Fehr both testified on Capitol Hill in March that baseball's current steroid program was working. Selig called the policy "as good as any in professional sports."
But Selig has since broken from Fehr, saying the game's integrity is at stake and proposing a suspension of 50 games for a first violation, 100 for a second and a lifetime ban for a third offense.
Fehr said in an interview that he has not yet taken a position on Selig's proposal. "We'll be meeting with the players to discuss it. The available evidence so far suggests it [the current program] is working."
Fehr's defense of the status quo made him a frequent target for committee members, who peppered him with questions and criticism as he sat with Selig at the witness table. Particularly troublesome to panel members was that baseball would not now issue a lifetime ban until at least the fifth steroid infraction.
Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, asked Fehr if he had children. Fehr replied that he did.
"Would you give them five chances if they said they wanted to experiment with a dangerous drug?" Murphy asked. Fehr said he would not.
Baseball wasn't the only sport criticized by Stearns, who questioned why the NBA stops conducting steroid tests on veteran players after training camp. G. William Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, replied that the league believes it only needs to routinely test rookies because veterans understand the rules. Stern said veterans can be tested during the season if there is reason to believe they are using illegal substances.
"We don't have a steroid problem," Hunter said after the hearing. "The congressmen for whatever reason may not believe that."
Stern said the NBA, in negotiations with the union for a new collective bargaining agreement, wants to "significantly strengthen" its steroid program by increasing penalties. He said the league has proposed a 10-game suspension for a first offense, 25 games for a second and disqualification for a third. The current penalties are five games, 10 games and 25 games, respectively.
Stern and Hunter are to appear again today - along with Washington Wizards guard Juan Dixon - before a second committee holding its own hearings on steroids in sports.