03/10/2004 10:51 PM ET
Selig, Fehr testify before Senate
Commissioner willing to reopen Basic Agreement
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
Selig hopes to resolve pension issue
|Bud Selig testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. At right is MLB Players Association executive director Donald Fehr. (Dennis Cook/AP)
Reggie outspoken in steroid remarks
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Major League Baseball has reached "a tipping point," regarding how the sport addresses the use of illegal steroids by its players, top officials of the game and the players association were told Wednesday at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz), addressing Don Fehr, executive director of the players association, and Commissioner Bud Selig, is chairman of the committee and was a central figure in the proceedings.
"Mr. Fehr and Mr. Selig, all I can say is that this issue has reached the level where the President of the United States has discussed it in his State of the Union message," McCain said. "We will have to act in some way unless the MLB players association acts in an affirmative and rapid fashion. The integrity of the sport and the American people demand a certain level of adherence to standards that frankly are not being met."
Selig accepted the criticism, saying: "I realize that we have work to do. We need more frequent and year-round testing of players. We need immediate penalties for those caught using illegal substances."
McCain and the committee directed their sternest remarks toward Fehr. McCain challenged the players association to accept a better and more comprehensive drug-testing plan.
"Your failure to commit to addressing this issue straight on and immediately will motivate this committee to search for legislative remedies," McCain said. "The status quo is not acceptable. And we will have to act in some way unless the Major League players union acts in the affirmative and rapid fashion."
Fehr demurred, describing the current policy as adequate and said he expects a "drastic reduction in steroid use" when testing is completed and the results are released this season. At the same time, Fehr said there are provisions in the current agreement to address any evolving issues and that the union would be happy to engage in discussions under those auspices.
Major League Baseball's drug policy calls for random drug testing for steroids this season followed by treatment for a first positive result and punitive measures if the same player tests positive again.
Selig, responding to a question from McCain, said he would be willing to immediately reopen the Basic Agreement to address concerns about baseball's Major League drug policy.
"My answer is unequivocally, 'yes,'" Selig said.
Asked the same question, Fehr declined to commit.
Rob Manfred, MLB's vice president of labor relations and human resources, said Wednesday the committee of union and management representatives that oversees the Joint Drug Policy has the ability to informally discuss any issues that arise, which is different than reopening the agreement altogether. Manfred was in attendance along with MLB executives Bob DuPuy, John McHale, Tom Ostertag, plus Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo and Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
Angelos said the tone of the hearing highlighted much of MLB's problems in collectively bargaining toward a stricter drug policy.
"We need cooperation of the players association," Angelos said. "From what I heard today, Mr. Fehr is not prepared to do that. Hopefully, he will see the error of his ways in the very near future."
In the current agreement, Fehr said, the union had moved from its long-standing position of no drug testing at all unless there is probable cause. The union agreed to begin with non-punitive survey testing to quantify whether a steroid problem existed in the sport. Last year a total of 1,438 tests were conducted on 1,198 players.
When 5 to 7 percent of the tests came back positive, the punitive phase of the testing program kicked in this year. If the results fall below 2.5 percent in consecutive seasons, punitive testing would end under terms of the current agreement. If it doesn't, punitive testing continues. In any event, the entire drug policy sunsets when the current Basic Agreement expires on Dec. 19, 2006.
Fehr, who underwent surgery to remove his gallbladder two weeks ago and was given clearance by his doctors to appear at the hearing, said in a weakened voice that the union didn't take the privacy rights of the player "lightly."
"I submit we have already made a substantial compromise. If further compromises are needed, we'll be willing to talk about those," he said.
McCain bristled at the remark. He noted that steroids testing in the National Football League is a year-round program and that a player is suspended without pay for one quarter of the season (four games) on the first offense. Any Olympic athlete testing positive is suspended for two years from all international competition for the first offense and permanently for the second offense.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, NFL union executive director Gene Upshaw, and Terry Madden, the executive director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), also testified at the hearing.
Upshaw, a former member of the Oakland Raiders, said that the players instigated the testing program in football.
"Our players were the leaders in this area," he said. "They demanded that we get it out of football. Period. End of discussion. We want zero tolerance. We don't want it in the game. We're not concerned about privacy. We're not concerned about search and seizure."
McCain and the Senators sitting on the committee made it clear on Wednesday that they want steroid use out of Major League Baseball, too.
"Sports organizations that allow athletes to cheat through weak drug testing regimes are aiding and abetting cheaters," McCain said.
Selig told the committee that he wants a zero-tolerance policy in the Major Leagues, similar to the one unilaterally implemented in the minor leagues three years ago.
The drug program unilaterally implemented at the minor-league level in 2001 includes testing for steroids, over-the-counter nutritional supplements such as Ephedra, a host of recreational drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, plus alcohol. Testing is conducted year-round. The consequences of the first positive test are punitive, and subsequent positive tests could lead to expulsion from baseball.
Last year, Selig said, MLB conducted nearly 5,000 tests in the minor leagues, and the program is being expanded to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela summer leagues. Selig hopes the Major Leagues are next.
"That's my objective," Selig said in an interview after the nearly 2 1/2-hour hearing in the Russell Building adjacent to the Capitol had ended. "We need that policy. The more medical people I talk to, the more I have to insist that it happens."
Asked by McCain, Terry Madden, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, gave this assessment of how drug testing should be improved in baseball: "They need to be year-round, out of competition, no advance-notice testing, with more serious penalties and a more complete list of prohibited substances."
The committee also is examining legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Biden that would ban over-the-counter sales of drugs like androstenedione, a steroid-based supplement that Mark McGwire used in 1998, the year he broke Roger Maris' single-season home run mark. A similar bill also is beginning to make its way through the House of Representatives.
"The union's wrong, here," said Biden (D-Del). "Baseball is the national pastime, but it's the repository of the values of this country.
"There's something simply un-American about this. This is about values, about culture, it's about who we define ourselves to be."
Two years ago, Fehr and Manfred testified before the same Senate Commerce Committee prior to engaging in serious collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement.
At the time, Fehr invited the committee to take a look at the federal government's own standards for selling performance-enhancing drugs legally over the counter. He did so again Wednesday, saying the union was not about to ban drugs that are sold freely without a prescription across the U.S. to anyone who wants to obtain them, despite precedents in other sports.
"Major League players are not children, and I'm not their parents," Fehr said. "I repeat to you what I said then: I urge you to reconsider the law top to bottom. If that's not good public policy, change it. That's all you have to do. If androstenedione is safe enough to be sold within blocks from this hearing room, then you can't suggest that professional athletes are different than anyone else."
Times have changed since the hearing in June 2002. The matter has become more urgent as a result of the ongoing revelations coming out of a federal grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) for tax evasion and illegally distributing steroids without a prescription. A number of ballplayers testified before the grand jury, including Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Benito Santiago.
No athletes were indicted, and the players have denied they took steroids. But the Senate and MLB are dealing with altered public perceptions, McCain said.
"If you don't want to address it now, you'll have to address it later," he said. "You have a serious public relations problem here."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story is not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.