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Steroids and the Feds

- - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

When the House Government Reform Committee recently called baseball stars and league officials to testify about steroid use, critics complained that Congress and the federal government should not get involved in sports, even regarding drug use. These critics were off the mark.

First, the federal government already has a role in this issue. It is a federal crime to possess and distribute steroids and certain other performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, one reason baseball now faces a steroid crisis is that federal authorities have only recently begun seriously addressing their responsibility to crack down on illegal steroids.

The Clinton administration drug czar's office, which then headed efforts to address drug use in sports, had to cajole the Drug Enforcement Administration to increase enforcement against steroids and related drugs. As a result, steroids are widely available to both big leaguers and little leaguers.

Second, the federal government already has a moral and statutory responsibility to educate young people about the dangers of illegal drug use, including steroids.

Performance-enhancing drugs seriously risk the health and safety of users, especially young people. The risks of steroid use include: elevated cholesterol levels, increased incidence of heart disease, addiction, serious liver damage, sex-trait changes and often severe behavioral changes, particularly heightened aggressiveness. No victory is worth the damage these substances do to a person -- just ask the parents who told the hearing their children committed suicide because of steroid use. Stars who use these dangerous drugs set a deadly example for children. The administration and Congress have a role in making athletes, parents, children, coaches and others aware of risks.

Third, critics of federal involvement erroneously portray sports as somehow different. In fact, sports, especially Major League Baseball and the other pro leagues, are big businesses.

Great plays and devoted fans notwithstanding, the pro leagues involve companies and individuals overwhelmingly in it for the money -- and there is nothing wrong with that. For those who doubt sports are basically about money, consider the long list of teams, from baseball's old Washington Senators to the NFL's Baltimore Colts, that were simply moved away from their adoring fans when they fell on fiscal hard times.

In business terms, use of steroids has essentially cooked the recordbooks of these companies. If such fraud and abuse occurred in any other market sector, there would be no question federal involvement is appropriate. There should be none here. Moreover, the sports leagues enjoy substantial federal benefits under law, including a vital antitrust exemption. In the other sectors, such as broadcasting, where special privileges are granted by the federal government, companies are subject to public responsibilities and federal oversight.

Fourth, some critics have the simply wrongheaded idea that the unique nature of sports makes impossible a positive federal role in fixing this problem. Overwhelmingly in other nations, professional sports leagues are subject to independent drug testing and enforcement agencies that are, one way or another, governmental or quasi-governmental bodies. For example, sports-crazed Australia operates the Australian Sports Drug Agency, one of the world's finest programs.

In fact, the director of the Clinton White House office on drug control policy office, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, played a critical role in setting up just such a body for the U.S. Olympic athletes.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, has made tremendous strides in safeguarding America's Olympic athletes. The USADA could easily be expanded into a quasi-governmental oversight body responsible for counterdrug programs for the pro leagues as well as the Olympic and elite amateur ranks.

No antidrug program, whether run by the leagues or by the federal government, will be perfect. There is a constant struggle between those who want to protect the ideal of sports and the dreams of clean athletes and those who will go to any length, including using drugs, to win.

However, there is no question current anti-doping programs are woefully inadequate. The leagues and players have had countless chances to fix this problem. If federal intervention is needed to get the job done, so be it.

In fact, given the problems professional baseball faces in this scandal, the league might well consider federal help as something like a relief pitcher coming in late in the game to rescue it from a very costly loss.

 

Robert Housman is senior vice president for government relations at Fleishman-Hillard communications firm. From 1997 to 2001, Mr. Housman headed the White House efforts on sports and drugs. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the World Anti-Doping Agency and of WADA's oversight team for the Sydney Olympic Games.