- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

The head of the Major League Baseball Players Association yesterday defended the union’s opposition to frequent drug testing imposed by management but told a key Senate panel that players are free to conduct tests on their own and announce the results.

As expected, reluctance by union chief Donald Fehr to help bring baseball drug testing into equity with other major team sports and the Olympics quickly brought a threat of legislative action from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

McCain, a strident critic of fraud in big-time sports and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, presided over a lengthy and sometimes testy hearing on steroids.

“Your failure to commit to addressing this issue straight on and immediately will motivate this committee to search for legislative remedies,” McCain told Fehr. “I don’t know what [the remedies] are. But I can tell you, and the players you represent, the status quo is not acceptable. The sport is about to become a fraud.”

But Fehr’s surprising comment permitting individual, voluntary player tests appears to provide a quick and simple way for willing players to ease widespread suspicion regarding steroid use.

“There is no legal impediment to doing [voluntary tests],” Fehr said.

Players in several sports have said they want such tests or, like Damon Stoudamire of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, have gone ahead with an individual drug test unconnected to an official league program.

New York Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield, one of several prominent baseball players linked to the ongoing federal case against San Francisco-based BALCO, said recently he wants a test to clear his name.

But Gene Orza, players union chief operating officer, quickly put an end to Sheffield’s talk, saying the test would violate the current collective bargaining agreement. Questioned about Fehr’s comment yesterday, Orza said the key issue is whether a player is “inherently coerced” to take a test that is not part of the official MLB program.

“It has to be fully of one’s own accord. You cannot be coerced in any way,” Orza said. “It can’t be any situation where a player is put up to it or feels any pressure to do it. A columnist telling Gary he should do this, which is what happened, falls under that [category].”

Regardless of how many players actually conduct their own tests, MLB commissioner Bud Selig told McCain and his committee he will seek to expand baseball’s minimal organized drug testing as soon as possible. This season is the first of random testing for players, and the weak system requires five positive tests before a year-long suspension is imposed. An initial positive test mandates only counseling and treatment and no loss of pay.

By comparison, the NFL levies a quarter-season suspension for a first positive test for steroids or any other drug on its list of banned substances. The Olympics levies a two-year suspension for a initial positive drug test and a lifetime ban for a second.

Such relative weakness in drug enforcement within baseball, a sport still beloved by millions despite its many problems, drew repeated rebukes from senators on the panel, with Fehr receiving the brunt of the blows.

“This is not a health issue alone,” said Sen. Joseph Biden, Delaware Democrat. “This is a values issue. And the union is wrong on this, just wrong. Sports are a repository of our national values. This is the ultimate meritocracy, and what’s happening now [with steroids], there is something simply un-American about this.”

Fehr defended the union stance by citing long-held organizational beliefs in individual rights, protection against unwarranted searches, and innocence until guilt is proven.

“The testing of an individual, not because of something he is suspected to have done but simply because he is a member of a particular class, is at odds with fundamental principles of which we in the country have long and rightly been proud,” Fehr said.

Action is now under way in both houses of Congress to ban over-the-counter supplements that include precursors to anabolic steroids. Fehr has long asked Congress to ban substances it deems dangerous from the entire population instead of holding ballplayers to a higher standard.

The desired model for MLB, Selig said, is the program already in place in Minor League Baseball, which is not represented by a union. There, random testing is year-round, and initial offenders receive a 15-day suspension with quickly accelerating punishments. Management, however, was unable to negotiate such a system for the majors during the 2002 round of collective bargaining, and with a potential players strike looming, they made a compromise deal.

“This an evolving program, but clearly the goal is to get to zero tolerance,” Selig said.

Selig, however, could not specify what changes might be coming or when. The current labor deal with the players extends through the 2006 season. But Orza, who did not testify yesterday, has said he does not anticipate any changes while the current pact is in place.

The NFL, represented at the hearing by commissioner Paul Tagliabue and union chief Gene Upshaw, was repeatedly praised by senators for their cooperation in implementing more stringent drug and steroid policies.

“We’re not concerned about privacy or search and seizure,” Upshaw said. “I want steroids out of the game — period.”

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