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?"