WASHINGTON - A congressional effort to create a single steroids testing standard for all professional sports gained momentum yesterday but was opposed by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who said the league has no widespread steroids problem and can police itself.
Under several proposals under consideration, Congress would step in and mandate a uniform approach - for testing, penalties or both - to curb the abuse of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in football, baseball and other sports.
In football, Tagliabue said, "we don't feel there is a rampant effort to cheat," and he accused critics of unfairly presuming players are on steroids because of the athletes' large size.
Unlike a congressional hearing on steroids in baseball last month, no active players were summoned to testify. A retired NFL lineman, Steve Courson, earnestly told the committee in a deep voice of his "love-hate" relationship with steroids.
"You love what they do to your training, but you hate compromising yourself," Courson said. He said that he suspected the drugs were to blame for earlier heart problems but that he is now in good health.
It's rare for Congress to intervene and set policy for the nation's professional sports. More commonly, lawmakers suggest legislative remedies as a prod and then back off. Baseball has often been threatened with the loss of its antitrust exemption when it diverged with Congress on various issues.
The steroids proposals, although certain to face obstacles, were picking up key House and Senate backers.
"I think that's where it's going," committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican, told reporters after yesterday's hearing in which lawmakers heard from Tagliabue, NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw, Courson, and several medical experts and high school coaches.
"I think one standard probably makes the most sense," said Davis, who is working on draft legislation. "It's a huge issue, and it needs to be taken care of. We may leave the penalty phase up to the league and just have uniform testing."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is also working on such a bill, as is Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the Government Reform Committee's ranking member. "To its credit, baseball has recognized the potential value of such an approach," said Waxman, a California Democrat.
A second House committee is also studying steroids legislation. That measure, introduced this week by Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, would require that all sports adopt the steroids testing and punishment requirements of the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA. That would mean a two-year suspension for the first violation and a lifetime ban for a second infraction.
Stearns' bill is scheduled to be considered by the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a hearing May 5.
The NFL currently suspends players four games for a first offense. Baseball recently began a policy of mandatory 10-day suspensions for first violations. The National Basketball Association - which will be the subject of a future House Government Reform steroids hearing - suspends players five games for an initial infraction.
This week, the NFL strengthened its steroids policy by adding substances to its banned list and tripling the number of times a player can be tested for drugs in the offseason.
Tagliabue said the program was keeping steroids use in check. He said there have been 54 suspensions since the penalty was introduced in 1989. Fifty-seven other players tested positive but retired rather than face punishment.
But some witnesses and lawmakers said yesterday that more must be done.
"Even the NFL policy, as good as it is, does have holes," Waxman said.
Noting the "very low" number of players testing positive - an average of about seven a year - Waxman asked: "Is it because the policy is working or because some players have figured out how to avoid detection?"
Tagliabue said the policy was an effective deterrent. "We don't think the low level of positives indicates a weak program any more than the low level of positives indicates a weak WADA program," he said.
But the commissioner did acknowledge a loophole: The league has no test to detect the use of growth hormone.
"There is a feeling in many quarters it is being abused," said Gary Wadler, a member of WADA, which oversees Olympic drug testing and penalties.
Though there is no urine test for growth hormone, there is an available blood test that was used on several thousand athletes at the Summer Olympics in Athens. But Tagliabue said a U.S. lab has not yet been certified by WADA to conduct such tests.
Wadler also told lawmakers that the world code prohibits more than 40 stimulants but that the NFL bans only eight. "The [NFL] policy tends to omit the stronger stimulants such as amphetamine," Wadler said.
Tagliabue said the league doesn't need to prohibit all of the stimulants because, unlike WADA, it doesn't oversee multiple sports where different drugs may aid performance.
The NFL was also criticized for not disciplining players found to have used steroids at pre-employment events, such as a workout attended by scouts. "I think we should look at that, whether it would be lawful," the commissioner said.
Part of the lawmakers' concern, they said, was based simply by looking at NFL players and noticing the dramatic increase in linemen's size in the past 20 years.
Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the number of players weighing more than 300 pounds has soared from fewer than a dozen 20 years ago to between 300 and 400 today.
"Line of scrimmages are bigger than ever," Courson said.
But Tagliabue said the league's heaviest players have high percentages of body fat and don't fit the profiles of steroids users. "They tend to be the antithesis of the sculpted, lean athlete," he said.
From the outset, the committee members adopted a gentler tone with the NFL representatives than they did with Major League Baseball, whose executives were roundly criticized at the March 17 hearing for being lax on steroids.
"The NFL has been different. They've cooperated with the committee from the start," Waxman said.
But Lynch criticized his own committee for not inviting any current players. He called it a "glaring gap."
Last month, the committee subpoenaed a handful of current baseball players, including Orioles Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, along with retired sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.
This time, Davis suggested the hearing was supposed to be more low-key. "The last time we invited players, we had people saying we were trying to hot-dog it," the chairman said.