Selig, Fehr testify at House hearings
Committee chairman says he'll move to pass bill
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Four Commissioners representing professional baseball, hockey, soccer and basketball were told on Wednesday by a leader of the U.S. House of Representatives that his committee intends to pass legislation that would standardize drug testing throughout professional sports.That assertion came near the end of a four-hour morning session, during which Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and Don Fehr, the executive director of the MLB Players Association, gave testimony to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection and were later questioned by a number of its members. "In a perfect world I'd rather this just be done in collective bargaining or voluntary acceptance by the players in respective sports," said Congressman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a member of the subcommittee. "But obviously we don't live in a perfect world. And in this case we need federal intervention. I think we've gone too long. "We intend to discuss the bill in our committee and mark it. Make the necessary changes and bring it to a vote on the house floor and get it passed into federal law." Later in the day, a spokesman for another committee -- the House Government Reform Committee -- said his group was also preparing a similar bill expected to be released this week. That bill will be sponsored on the Senate side by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his Senate Commerce Committee, giving it more teeth than the legislation discussed during the hearing on Wednesday, which has no such companion piece in the Senate. "Our bill will have more weight to it," said Robert White, a spokesman for the Reform Committee, which had baseball officials and six current or former players in for what turned out to be a tendentious hearing on March 17. Wednesday's hearing was devoid of such acrimony. But it was clear that baseball was the focus, even though NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, his union counterpart Bob Goodenow, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and his counterpart Bob Foose, all also testified along with Selig and Fehr during the early session. After a break for lunch, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Billy Hunter, the head of the NBA Players Association, testified and answered questions for about an hour. Stern and Hunter are slated to appear before the Reform Committee on Thursday morning, while NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union leader Gene Upshaw are scheduled to testify before the subcommittee. Of the 29 members on the subcommittee, no more than 15 were ever in the hearing room at the same time. And when it ended, only five remained, including Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the subcommittee chairman who was a staple throughout the four hours. About 75 percent of the post-testimony questions were directed at Selig and Fehr as the other officials sat quietly. Bettman told the committee that only three NHL players in 10 years had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and all had mitigating circumstances; Hunter said that only three had tested positive in 4,200 tests administered under the NBA's steroid policy, and Garber said that his league has never had a player test positive, largely because a soccer player can have his contract terminated upon revelation of such a result.
Of course, the testing policies for the leagues vary widely, as does the list of banned drugs for which each league tests. For instance, the NBA doesn't test outside the preseason. And the NHL doesn't test for any performance-enhancing drugs.In 2002, its first year of testing, MLB had five-to-seven percent of its Major Leaguers test positive. Last year, 12 tested positive, while this season five have been caught and suspended for 10 days each without pay. Selig reiterated in Wednesday's hearing what he has said in recent days, promising tough new punishments for steroid use, either through collective bargaining or Congressional action. "The use of performance-enhancing substances calls into question not only the integrity of the Commissioner's Office, the Players Association and the Clubs, but also the integrity of each and every player," Selig said. "Such substances create an uneven playing field to the advantage of those who elect to cheat." The proposed bill, H.R. 1862 or the "Drug Free Sports Act," calls for the Olympic-type penalties of a two-year suspension for a first positive drug test and a lifetime ban for a second; random testing of every athlete at least once a year; tests for all substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and testing administered by an independent party. There would be a $5 million initial fine if a league doesn't comply and $1 million a day for further non-compliance. Selig told the committee in his testimony that MLB would rather collectively bargain any changes in the current drug program, but that the sport would support the federal legislation if passed. "From our perspective, and I suspect from the perspective of many in Congress, the ability of baseball to police itself is preferable to legislation," he said. "If we cannot do it, and I hope we can, I understand why legislation would be considered by Congress." Fehr testified at length that the union was against federal intervention in the process and was joined in that sentiment by the union leaders from the NHL and MLS. All agreed that two years for a first positive test result was too severe and might end a player's career. "It should come as no surprise that the Players Association does not believe the proposed legislation should be enacted," Fehr said. This was the fourth time since 2002 that MLB officials have been called to testify before a Congressional committee investigating the use of performance-enhancing drugs at all levels of sports and each time the stakes have grown higher. After a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in 2002, MLB collectively bargained its first-ever steroid drug-testing program. After the same committee called Selig and Fehr back last year, the two sides negotiated stronger penalties and a wider range of random tests. Now, after hearings before two separate committees on the House side in the last two months, the tone of the elected officials hasn't changed. The MLB penalties for successive positive tests of a 10-day suspension, 30-day suspension, 60-day suspension and a one-year ban are not good enough. "We'll enact this bill if you stay stuck at 10," Fred Upton (R-Michigan) told Fehr during the question and answer period. Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, said he expected a hard line from the Congressmen on Wednesday. "There were no surprises, I thought, at the hearing today," he said in an after-session interview. "The chairman of the subcommittee and committee as a whole told us beforehand that they were serious about the legislation. We'll continue to work with the committee as this moves forward, but I have no doubt in this committee's resolve to pass the legislation." Selig told the committee that he hopes the union will agree to his plan for more stringent penalties -- 50 games for the first offense, 100 games for the second and finally a lifetime ban. "We need to deal with this," Selig said in a post-hearing interview. "This sport should never be placed in a position where it's negatively influencing anything in society, given the fact of all the good we've done for the last 120 years." Fehr said that the union has yet to take a position on Selig's proposal and indicated afterward that it would be a lengthy process. "We've had some preliminary discussions with the players," Fehr said. "We'll continue to meet with the players and have told (Selig) that we'll be back in touch with him." Asked if he expected to make a team-by-team tour to discuss the issue, Fehr said: "I don't know yet." Selig said there was no timetable for again collectively bargaining any changes with the union. "But we need to get this done as soon as possible," he said. "The intensity is on. Let's get it done. Time is not our ally."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.