WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress said yesterday that they plan to introduce legislation creating a national steroid policy, a proposal immediately opposed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and players' representatives from football and baseball.
"It is my full intention to move a bill," Rep. Bobby Rush, chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said during a hearing that brought together the commissioners of baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL, as well as NCAA president Myles Brand.
A horse racing official also testified and called for states to bar the use of steroids in thoroughbreds - an action Maryland has studied but not yet taken. "The racing industry is in agreement racehorses should not compete on anabolic steroids," said Alexander Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, an industry group.
Rush said his aim was a "level national policy" establishing standards to curb the use of performance-enhancing drugs across football, baseball, basketball, hockey and perhaps the NCAA. The sports currently have varying testing protocols and penalties. The Illinois Democrat, who hasn't yet drafted a bill, said the stakes are too high and the problems too entrenched for Congress to ignore.
Rush acknowledged after the hearing that it might take months for the legislation to move through Congress - perhaps until a new presidential administration takes over in January.
The hearing came two weeks after the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform heard pitcher Roger Clemens deny allegations of steroid use made by his personal trainer. Yesterday, the panel asked the Justice Department to investigate Clemens for perjury. "The committee's decision is unwarranted and not supported by the facts," said Clemens' attorney, Rusty Hardin.
Rush and other lawmakers found support for their sweeping proposal from the testimony of an anti-doping expert who told the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection that U.S. leagues' policies are inadequate.
"While the professional leagues' anti-doping policies have significantly improved over the past several years, they still fail to fully implement all the basic elements of the most effective programs," said Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which monitors drug use in the Olympics.
Olympians who use performance-boosting drugs face a two-year suspension for a first violation and a lifetime ban for a second. American sports leagues are more lenient. Baseball, prodded by Congress the past few years, has adopted the toughest penalties of the four sports represented yesterday. Major leaguers are suspended 50 games for a first steroid offense, are suspended 100 games for a second violation and receive a lifetime ban for a third.
In 2005, the subcommittee held a similar hearing before approving legislation similar to what Rush and others are contemplating. But the bill didn't have enough support to become law.
"Let's get it right this time," Texas Republican Joe Barton said. "Let's go ahead and get something into law that's acceptable."
But NBA commissioner David Stern countered: "The sports leagues have pretty much gotten it right in the intervening three years. So I would say this is an area where federal legislation is not necessary."
The NBA's policy, toughened since 2005, suspends first-time violators 10 games for a first steroid offense, 25 games for a second and one year for a third violation. Few players have been suspended, and Stern said the penalties are "strict enough."
Goodell said in written testimony: "We do not believe that there is a demonstrated need for federal legislation." NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw agreed. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig suggested he favored making changes through collective bargaining with players.
But Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn told Stern and the other commissioners, "If you all had gotten it right, we would not be here today."
Rush had wanted to question World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon, who declined because his attorney was unable to attend the hearing. The committee became interested in WWE after the death last year of professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who strangled his wife and 7-year-old son before hanging himself. Steroids were found in Benoit's home, although it is unclear whether they played a role in the slayings.
Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield said he would not be opposed to legislation to compel states to ban steroids at horse races. "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?" he asked.
The Maryland Racing Commission says it hopes to have rules in place by next year cracking down on "cheaters" who load up their horses with steroids.