WASHINGTON - Athletes in five major professional sports leagues would be subjected to an unforgiving steroid-testing regimen under terms of legislation to be introduced next week in the House of Representatives.
As two days of congressional hearings ended, lawmakers said yesterday that the stakes are too high - and the problems too entrenched - to allow even well-intentioned leagues to handle the sports "cheating" issue themselves.
"I am not convinced that an effective solution to this problem can be found in a system that allows those with a vested interest in the performance of players and leagues to police themselves," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican whose Energy and Commerce subcommittee heard from the leaders of Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer.
While encouraged by the leagues' "new movement toward eliminating steroids in sport," Stearns said he still plans to bring up his bill for subcommittee approval "in the next week or so." Tougher than any of the leagues' policies, the measure would require random testing of every athlete, a two-year suspension for a first steroid offense and a lifetime ban for a second violation.
"I think it will go," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "Members of Congress will begin to understand that this is something the public wants. I have never seen this much bipartisanship on any issue since I've been in Congress."
Cummings says he advocates a "zero-tolerance" policy so athletes can no longer perpetuate the "myth" that illegal steroids - whether they are used to bulk up or bounce back from injuries - are safe. "Unfortunately, these destructive messages resonate most with our youth," he said.
Cummings is a member of the House Government Reform Committee, which has also been conducting hearings and plans to introduce its own bill next week along with Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
"It's going to be stronger than [Stearns'] bill," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the committee's ranking Democrat. "I think people will be supportive."
League and union officials object to a "one size fits all" approach that they say would eliminate needed flexibility in crafting anti-steroid programs. Donald Fehr, the baseball players union chief, questioned whether the bill would violate the constitutional requirement that government-ordered searches be based on at least a suspicion of wrongdoing.
Responded Waxman yesterday: "I don't see a constitutional argument. The government adopts policies on drug use, and the government can see where those policies need to be adjusted."
Yesterday, NBA commissioner David Stern offered a new objection to the legislation: cost. Appearing before the Government Reform panel, Stern said the bill could require the league to test for drugs that might not be prevalent in basketball and are expensive to test for. Otherwise, Stern said that he could support the legislation, though he has said that he would prefer self-regulation.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig also has said he would not resist legislation, but suggested he would prefer that the sport handle its own affairs. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has testified that drug testing in his sport "is not a problem that needs federal legislation in order to be fixed."
Stern got no sympathy on the cost issue from committee members, who criticized the NBA's steroid policy as "simply inadequate" and "pathetic." Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said the policy contains "Shaq-sized holes," a reference to the Miami Heat's star 7-foot center Shaquille O'Neal.
NBA rookies are subject to random testing during training camp and three times during the season. Veterans are tested only in training camp, unless there is reason to believe that they are using steroids.
Testifying along with Stern were Washington Wizards guard and former Maryland star Juan Dixon and Houston Rockets trainer Keith Jones. With his fiancee in the audience, Dixon, a Calvert Hall graduate, sat at the witness table and read from a prepared statement. Davis praised him as a "local hero."
Dixon and Jones said they had never seen an NBA player use illegal steroids. Jones added that he had never seen a player change in ways typically associated with steroid use.
"Changes in the face, in the jaw are noticeable," he said. "There's the acne. And a lot of behavioral changes. I have not seen that."
But committee members said that wasn't good enough.
"The reason you don't have evidence of steroid abuse is because you don't have a testing policy," said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Lynch asked Stern and National Basketball Players Association chief Billy Hunter whether a November melee in which players entered the stands during a Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers game had led the league to invoke "reasonable cause" steroid testing. Steroid use has been linked to anger and mood swings.
"I think that's a quantum leap," Hunter replied.
Stern went further, telling Lynch: "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."
At the end of the hearing, the committee was right where it began - ready to take the steroids matter into its own hands.
"I don't think they got it," Cummings said of the NBA representatives. "Is this the old rope-a-dope where we say nice things to the Congress and turn around and go the same old way? I can tell you our children don't have time for that."