Congress turns focus from baseball to other professional sports

Friday, November 18, 2005

WASHINGTON -- For months, at hearing after hearing on Capitol Hill, lawmakers chided baseball, championed the NFL and mostly left the NBA and NHL alone.

One steroid-testing agreement later, that landscape has changed.

Now that major league baseball players will be facing harsher penalties, Congress is sending a message to other professional athletes: We want you to catch up.

It seems clear, though, that those other leagues and unions aren't necessarily planning to get right to work rewriting drug-testing programs that already have been made tougher since lawmakers began focusing on the issue in March.

"We don't think we need to stiffen our penalties," NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw said Wednesday. "Let Congress act if they want to. We have put a responsible model in place. We didn't need Congress to tell us to put it in, so why would we need them to modify it?

"It's actually our model that they have been holding up as the way to go," he noted.

That's true: During the series of House and Senate hearings on steroids in sports, the NFL's program -- older and more stringent than other sports' -- was heaped with praise. As NFL spokesman Joe Browne said, "Other sports have modeled their drug programs after ours, which has been around more than 15 years."

Baseball owners and players agreed Tuesday to a 50-game suspension without pay for a first offense, a 100-game suspension for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third. Baseball also added testing for amphetamines.

So, suddenly, a sport that was criticized in March for allowing $10,000 fines instead of 10-day suspensions after a first failed test is now considered a leader.

"I think it's safe to say that most members of Congress will now view MLB as the minimum standard, so they'll be watching any leagues that don't meet that standard currently," Dave Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., wrote in an e-mail to the AP.

Under the new deal, a major leaguer would miss nearly a third of a 162-game season after a first failed test. The NFL's initial four-game penalty costs a player a quarter of a 16-game season; the NHL's 20-game initial penalty is about a quarter of an 82-game season; and the NBA's 10-game initial penalty is about an eighth of an 82-game season.

In recent months, the NFL increased the number of tests players may be subject to, the NBA doubled its initial penalty and the NHL began testing for performance-enhancing substances for the first time.

And yet, commissioner Bud Selig could say at the baseball owners' meeting in Milwaukee on Wednesday, "We have the toughest program now in American sports, and I'm proud of that."

Davis and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., sponsored a bill with a two-year ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second across pro sports. By Tuesday, though, they were supporting legislation sponsored by Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and John McCain, R-Ariz., with a half-season ban, followed by a one-season ban, then a lifetime ban.

While that legislation was put on hold after baseball's announcement, those four lawmakers, plus the sponsor of another House bill, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., all made clear the threat of congressional intervention isn't disappearing.

"We'll leave it there and see what the other major league sports do," Bunning said. Davis said, "We reserve the right to push the button" on the legislation.

Stearns was most cautious about praising baseball, saying he wants to see a signed deal. Owners ratified the agreement unanimously Thursday at their meetings in Milwaukee. The union's executive board will decide when it meets Dec. 5-9 in Henderson, Nev., whether all players should vote to ratify the agreement or if board approval is enough.

"This is a promise and not a policy," Stearns said. "I've dealt with them before in a hearing and they made promises and nothing happened. I'm not convinced."

He also still thinks steroid rules should be standardized across sports.

"We're still in discussions with some of the other sports," Davis said. "Hockey, in our judgment, has a fairly weak system."

Not surprisingly, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly had a different view.

"We don't at all agree that the program we have negotiated and implemented is weak. To the contrary, we believe we have a very strong program in a sport that has no experience or history of problems with performance-enhancing drugs," Daly wrote in an e-mail to the AP.

"We're happy to continue to work and cooperate with Congress to address and hopefully satisfy whatever concerns they might have. It would be premature at best to speculate at this time whether we and the NHLPA would be prepared to make changes to our newly bargained program."

NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said the league wouldn't comment.

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