BASEBALL took another beating on Capitol Hill yesterday, this time in absentia.
The NFL is king, even in Washington, where baseball has experienced a rebirth this spring.
That much was apparent when the NFL's most powerful executives paraded before the U.S. House Government Reform Committee investigating steroids in sports and got the official good housekeeping seal of approval.
Last month, the same congressional panel lambasted baseball for its failure to police steroids. Yesterday, it lauded the efforts of the NFL.
"This hearing today with all of you and the early panel is light years different from [Major League Baseball]," said committee vice chair Chris Shays (R-Conn.), addressing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, executive vice president for labor relations Harold Henderson and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw.
"Commissioner, I want to thank you for knowing what the hell's going on. With all due respect, the commissioner of baseball [Bud Selig] hadn't even read the document that he had given us."
Conspicuously absent from these steroids hearings was the indignation that Selig, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco inspired.
That session filled the chambers with angry congressmen, contentious questions and evasive answers.
This one was sparsely attended, as the various committee members shuffled in and out while tending to other House business. Several times, the revolving congressmen asked questions that already had been asked.
As usual, the NFL had all the answers.
Tagliabue said he didn't support the idea of an across-the-board sports steroid policy. He allowed that the NFL's policy wasn't perfect, but insisted the banned substance was under control in his league.
He was emphatic when Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member, asked if the answer to the problem was a nationwide policy.
"I don't think so," Tagliabue said. "It's a question of general rules versus specialized programs. Both have a place in society. We have a specialized program aimed at our sport, for our needs. ... We've set the standard for other programs."
The only real criticism leveled at the NFL was aimed at its disciplinary system. Several congressmen, particularly Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), felt the league could make a stronger statement by barring a player after two positive tests.
The league will suspend a player for four games for one positive test. The penalty for two positive tests is six games. A third results in a year's suspension.
Tagliabue's response was part disciplinarian, part humanitarian.
"We want it to be stiff," he said of the penalty. "We don't have repeat offenders. We have not had repeat offenders stay in the league. [But] at some point, I'd rather save a life than destroy it."
In the 15 years since the league began disciplining players for positive steroid tests, it has suspended 54 players.
Tagliabue said another 57 players who tested positive went without discipline because they either retired or were cut.
In a pre-emptive strike, the league announced on Tuesday that it will triple - to six - the number of random, offseason drug tests it can administer.
While the House committee invited an assortment of baseball players, past and present, to the hearing last month, only one football player - aside from Upshaw - was invited yesterday. That was Steve Courson, who admitted using steroids while playing with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s. He retired 20 years ago.
New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett, who recently told of widespread steroids use during his playing career, was among the notable witnesses overlooked.
Nevertheless, Congress was satisfied.
"A little over a month ago, we looked at baseball's steroid policy and [baseball] fought us every step of the way," Waxman said. "When we finally got the league's policy, we found that it was surprisingly weak.
"The NFL has been different; they've cooperated with the committee from the start and they have a very different steroid policy, too. There is no question that the NFL has a steroid program that is superior to the baseball program we examined at our last hearing."