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Three leagues turning to feds on steroids

WASHINGTON -- With a congressional vise tightening on them, several major sports leagues yesterday all but yielded to the demand for a once-unfathomable scenario: a federal takeover of their drug-testing programs.

Commissioners of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League -- each appearing before a House panel -- voiced qualified support for sweeping government intervention and cited immediate plans to further protect their games from illegal drugs, particularly anabolic steroids.

''There should be no doubt left in anyone's mind that we have to rid our sport of steroids," baseball commissioner Bud Selig told the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on commerce, trade, and consumer protection. ''To do that, we have to toughen the penalties and do all these other things."

The major dissenters were labor chiefs, most notably Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Fehr drew stinging criticism from the panel for arguing that drug testing should continue to be governed by the collective bargaining process and suggesting the proposed ''Drug-Free Sports Act of 2005" could violate a player's Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.

''When I hear them throwing up the collective bargaining screen and the Fourth Amendment screen, I think, `We've got to keep moving forward,' " said Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican who chairs the subcommittee and serves as the measure's chief sponsor.

Joining Selig in endorsing the spirit of Stearns's initiative were NBA commissioner David Stern and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Selig expressed the strongest support, while Stern and Bettman recommended several changes, including the length of penalties and the rules for appealing disciplinary action.

''Fans in particular and the public at large are entitled -- and deserve -- to have confidence that our games are being played in a steroid-free environment," Bettman told the committee, though he asserted performance-enhancing drugs ''are not an issue in the NHL."

Major League Soccer commissioner Donald Garber, who also appeared before the committee, described the bill as a ''noble" attempt to restore ''the integrity and trust that has been damaged by recent scandals," but he said each sport would be better served policing itself.

National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL players union, are expected to express similar opposition when they appear before the committee today.

Under the measure, the US Commerce Secretary would issue regulations for drug testing in all major professional sports. Modeled after the standards used by the US Anti-Doping Agency, the proposal calls for a two-year ban for first offenses and a lifetime ban for second offenses, though Stearns said after the hearing he was willing to compromise on the penalties.

''I think we're going to look at the severity of that," he said, ''because in many cases they might be Draconian."

The bill, which is similar to legislation being drafted in the House Committee on Government Reform, also calls for fining leagues $5 million if they fail to comply with the law. The measure's backers believe they have enough momentum to succeed.

''We do intend to pass it on the [House] floor and take it to the Senate and actually set a federal law," said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee. ''The one thing that is not negotiable is that we do not do anything."

One of the committee's top Democrats, Rep. Edward Markey of Malden, Mass., also expressed support for ''an Olympic-style testing regime." Markey described the NBA's current drug-testing program as particularly toothless because veterans are screened only once a year during training camp and may not be tested again except for reasonable cause. Under the plan, which expires June 30, rookies can be tested up to four times during the season.

Stern acknowledged that no veteran was tested for reasonable cause during the 2003-04 season and that only three players have been suspended for steroid use since 1999. Both Stern and Billy Hunter, head of the NBA players' union, claimed the statistics prove the league is virtually steroid-free, but Markey questioned the assertion since veterans are aware they will not be tested during the regular season and playoffs and could avoid detection.

''We're in terra incognita," Markey said. ''It's important for us to remove the uncertainty."

In response, Stern and Hunter agreed that veterans will be tested at least once during the regular season under their next collective bargaining contract. Stern said he also would push to increase the penalties to 10 games from five for a first offense, 25 games from 10 for a second offense, and dismissal from the league for a third offense rather than the current 25-game penalty.

Selig, whose stepped-up campaign against steroids has endeared him to lawmakers, also detailed his plan to increase penalties: to 50 games from 10 games for first offenses, and 100 games from 30 games for second offenses. Third-time offenders, who currently face 60-game suspensions, would be banned for life.

But Fehr, unlike Selig, gave little ground, making him a prime target for several lawmakers.

''It seems that you might be one of the few people in the world who thinks that baseball's current penalties are tough enough," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, told Fehr. ''Is it the major league players who are pushing to keep the penalties where they are? Or is it you who is pushing to keep the penalties where they are?"

Fehr acknowledged ''in hindsight" that baseball may have reduced steroid use earlier had it addressed the problem, but he said the players were deeply divided over whether to alter the collective bargaining agreement they reached in 2002 and that runs until December 2006. They agreed in January to a tougher steroid policy.

As for the NHL, which lost its 2004-05 season to a labor dispute, Bettman and Bob Goodenow, the union chief, said they plan to begin the league's first testing program for performance-enhancing drugs before play resumes. Bettman said NHL players historically have exhibited problems with alcohol and recreational drugs rather than steroids. He said the league was aware of only three players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs among nearly 1,000 who were screened in international competition over the last decade.

The committee also heard from Frank Shorter, who won the Olympic marathon for the United States in 1972 and finished second in 1976 to an East German who purportedly participated in a state-sponsored doping program. Shorter, a former chairman of the US Anti-Doping Agency, supported a federal takeover of drug testing in professional sports.

''I think we've come to a point where you can't promote a sport and police it," he said.

Barton put it more bluntly, asking, ''How in the world did we ever get in a 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? However it happened, I'm glad it finally seems to be changing."

While Tagliabue and Upshaw appear before the subcommittee today, Stern will testify on the same floor of the Rayburn building before the Committee on Government Reform. He will be joined by Hunter, Washington Wizards guard Juan Dixon, and Houston Rockets trainer Keith Jones.

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