Drug regulation in sports on horizon

WASHINGTON Summoned again to Capitol Hill to discuss whether Congress should get into the business of legislating drug testing in the major professional sports leagues, the NBA commissioner took exception to lawmakers' remarks and stood up for his colleagues from the NFL, NHL and major league baseball.

"This is an area where federal legislation is not necessary," Stern told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

As big as Wednesday's hearing was -- it produced the rare sight of the four commissioners and their respective sports' union heads sitting at the same table -- it was upstaged by news from another panel.

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Roger Clemens lied under oath when he denied using steroids and human growth hormone at a Feb. 5 sworn deposition and at a Feb. 13 hearing.

There were no players at Wednesday's hearing. Instead, the commissioners sat side-by-side with their sport's union chiefs: Bud Selig was inches away from Donald Fehr; Stern was next to Billy Hunter. Then there was the NFL's Roger Goodell and Gene Upshaw, and the NHL's Gary Bettman and Paul Kelly.

All tried to persuade skeptical lawmakers that their respective leagues had taken steps to thwart steroids use and were anxiously awaiting a dependable way to detect human growth hormone, preferably through a urine test and not a blood test.

"In spite of the fact that they want to pronounce that they have it under control, I still think that it's not fully under control," said the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. "And we have to do more."

Baseball had the most to prove, having implemented a stringent steroids policy only in the last few years. The NFL began addressing the problem some two decades ago, while the NBA and NHL say the nature of their sports is such that steroids use is virtually nonexistent.

All four leagues have toughened their drugs policies since 2005, when many of the same witnesses -- including Stern -- testified before the same subcommittee. Several bills were introduced in the House and Senate after that session, but none came close to becoming law.

"Let's get it right this time. ... Let's go ahead and get something into law that is acceptable," Texas Republican Joe Barton said. "It's no fun having this hearing every two to three years."

That's when Stern interrupted, breaching protocol to point out the progress that has been made.

"The sports leagues HAVE gotten it right in the intervening three years," Stern said.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn was not fazed.

"Mr. Stern, I would suggest that we have not gotten it right enough," the Tennessee Republican said. "If we had gotten it right -- if you all had gotten it right -- we would not be here again today."

Blackburn said the leagues should be doing more to stem substance abuse at the grass roots level, and her comment to the witnesses that "you all have been very well coached" piqued Stern further.

"Enormous progress has been made," responded Stern, who then referred to the "voluminous, uncoached record" of material made available to the subcommittee.

"Things seem to be going in the right direction," Stern said in an interview during a break in the hearing. "If you read the statements of the leagues and listened to the testimony, that seems to be the case."

The commissioners and union heads generally agreed collective bargaining was the best way to address the drugs problem, rather than a one-size-fits-all law from Congress that would apply to all sports.

Rush differed on both counts. He said the subcommittee will continue to pursue some sort of legislation, but he was not specific.

"At the Olympics, they deal with a multitude of sports," Rush said. "And they seem to come up with a pretty good way of looking at the differences but also the similarities."

Rush opened the hearing with a message to "the elitists, the cynics and cultural critics" who say Congress should be spending its time on weightier matters rather than holding "a populist spectacle."

"I believe that we can move forward in a measured, deliberative and bipartisan manner with legislation that seriously tackles drugs in sports," Rush said.

Others politely disagreed.

"Sometimes I think we get our priorities out of order," Blackburn said.

Fehr suggested one way Congress could help sports leagues: require a chemical marker be placed in commercially sold HGH so that the substance would be detectable in a urine test.

Meanwhile, Selig said he has met with Fehr and a group of players to discuss implementing the recommendations of former Sen. George Mitchell's report on drug use in baseball. Selig said he hopes the "ongoing, detailed" talks produce a more independent, transparent and flexible drug testing program.

Rush said Mitchell was unable to attend Wednesday's hearing because he is receiving radiation treatment for cancer. The chairman also said he was "exceptionally and extremely disappointed" that World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon was the only witness to decline the subcommittee's invitation to testify.

"Today's hearing is not a trivial matter. ... Steroid abuse in professional wrestling is probably worse than in any professional sport or amateur sport," Rush said.

McMahon released a statement calling the comments about his absence "inaccurate and unfair." He said he notified the subcommittee a month ago he could not attend because his lawyer was representing another client at a trial in Pennsylvania.

A second witness panel included the CEOs of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, along with NCAA president Myles Brand.

Horse racing was of particular concern to Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who blamed steroids in part for the frequent breakdowns of horses on the track.

"Is it time to call the federal cavalry and send it chasing into your stables with guns blazing to clean up the sport of horse racing?" Whitfield said.

National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alexander Waldrop said a "model rule" for steroids testing has been adopted in many horse racing states and that it is hoped that all states will adopt it by the end of 2008.

"If they don't step up," Waldrop said, "then it is incumbent upon the federal government to step up."

- Send us your sports story tips
- Click here for more sports stories

Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.