The House Government Reform Committee has been conducting interviews with "credible insiders" as part of an investigation leading to tomorrow's hearing on the league's steroid policy.
As a result of those interviews - along with the recent report that three Carolina Panthers purchased steroids before the Super Bowl in 2004 - committee staff members say they are concerned that steroid testing may understate the problem.
"We're aware of the reports of the Panthers obtaining steroids," said Robert White, a spokesman for the committee's chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican. "Does that raise the issue of whether there are ways around the tests? That is obviously an inquiry we'll get into."
White declined to say whom the panel has interviewed or to discuss the results.
Another House staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, called those contacted "credible sources who follow football."
Through their statements, he said, "there is a specific issue with the NFL. Either the credible insiders are wrong when they say steroid use is widespread or else the testing program has a fatal flaw."
None of those "insiders" is scheduled to appear at tomorrow's hearing. Because of that, the session might be less of a media spectacle than the panel's March 17 hearing, in which some of baseball's brightest current and former stars testified uneasily about steroid use in their sport.
Among those scheduled to appear tomorrow are Steve Courson, a former NFL lineman who has said that steroids damaged his health, according to an updated witness list released yesterday.
Other witnesses are to include NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue; Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association; and Harold Henderson, the head of labor relations for the league. The panel has also invited physicians and steroid experts to testify.
But White said: "The public hearing is only a part of our inquiry. We've talked to and continue to talk to many people."
In the past, lawmakers often praised the NFL testing program as the strongest in professional sports. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's counsel for labor relations, appeared at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing March 11 and was hailed for the league's mandatory four-game suspension for a first violation. Major League Baseball, whose recently toughened steroid testing regimen is still relatively lenient, was criticized at the hearing as being "extremely weak."
The NFL conducts year-round testing. Seven players per team per week are tested at random during the season, including the playoffs. There is periodic testing in the off-season, and every player is tested for steroids.
"We do have one of the most comprehensive treatment and testing programs in all of sports," said league spokesman Brian McCarthy. "We work with the medical community to come up with state-of-the-art tests, not only testing, but discipline and education."
But the policy has come under increased scrutiny since CBS News reported last month that three Panthers players filled testosterone prescriptions issued by a doctor two weeks before they played in the 2004 Super Bowl. The State, a newspaper in Columbia, S.C., had reported earlier that at least nine current or former Panthers were sought for information about the doctor, James Shortt.
As the Panthers story was being dissected in the news media, Tagliabue said at an owners meeting in Hawaii that he remained "comfortable" with the league's steroid protocols. The NFL moved to strengthen its program by asking the players union to lower the criteria for what is considered a positive test for elevated testosterone levels.
Unlike baseball - which initially fought the House committee's attempts to subpoena witnesses for a hearing on steroids last month - Tagliabue has said from the beginning that the league would cooperate with the panel's investigation.
As part of its investigation, the committee asked the NFL on March 31 for a number of documents on drug testing - including how it is conducted, the notice provided to players, and the procedures for disclosing the identities of those who test positive.
The NFL does not specify what substance triggered a player's suspension. But the number of those suspended for steroid use appears to be relatively low.
According to The New York Times, three players violated the league's drug policy in 2001 and eight in 2002. There were six violations in 2003, the newspaper said, and at least one in 2004.
Sun staff writer Ken Murray contributed to this article.