- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

A key House committee yesterday pressured the Major League Baseball Players Association to accept a new ‘three strikes and you’re out’ steroids policy proposed by MLB commissioner Bud Selig.

Threatening federal legislation that would create a blanket federal policy against steroids for all U.S. professional sports, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce grilled Donald Fehr, MLB Players Association executive director, in a fashion typically reserved for Selig.

Despite a recently revised steroid policy in baseball, Selig is pushing for a more punitive program that would levy a 50-game suspension for an initial positive test for steroids, a 100-game suspension for a second positive test, and a lifetime ban from baseball for a third. The union has agreed to discuss the proposal with MLB executives but has not offered any explicit support for the plan. MLB team owners also have given unanimous support to the toughened penalties in the proposal.

Currently, an MLB player receives a one-year suspension after a fourth positive test, and penalties thereafter are left to the discretion of Selig.

‘Do you give your kids five chances if they experiment with illegal drugs?’ said Rep. Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, to Fehr.

Yesterday’s hearing also involved commissioners and union leaders from the NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer, with executives from the NFL and NFL Players Association set to appear before the panel today. But predictably, the focus was squarely on baseball, as the game’s surging popularity and comparatively weak steroid policy started Congress on its inquiry into steroid use in sports.

And unlike many prior, embattled appearances before Congress, Selig yesterday remained calm, focused and received none of the rebukes dominating MLB’s appearance in March before the House Committee on Government Reform.

“This is an integrity issue,” Selig said yesterday. “Do I believe the current program is working? Yes, I do. But we now have issues that rise above that, issues of public confidence, issues of our integrity. So the penalties definitely need to be stronger, and I want to move on this as quickly as possible.”

Selig plans to implement the heightened penalties in the minor leagues, where collective bargaining does not apply, starting next season.

The proposed federal legislation — dubbed the “Drug Free Sports Act of 2005” — seeks to bring drug testing in pro sports into near-uniformity with rules used in Olympic sports. In the bill, an initial positive test would bring a two-year suspension and a lifetime ban for a second. A $5million fee would also be levied upon noncompliant leagues. A companion version of the bill is being developed by the House Committee on Government Reform, and the Senate Commerce Committee.

But with the exception of Selig — who reluctantly endorsed the Drug Free Sports Act if Fehr and the union do not agree to his proposal — the other commissioners and union leaders strongly objected to any federal intervention into their drug policies, calling it too harsh and overreaching. In nearly every instance, the league argued their collectively bargained policies are better tailored to their individual sports, and in some cases, are stronger than what is being proposed on Capitol Hill.

Major League Soccer, for instance, grants commissioner Don Garber the discretion to levy any penalty, including a lifetime ban, for a first positive test for steroids.

Several of the players unions additionally cited privacy rights and constitutional concerns.

Also at play is an issue of shifting expectations. Last year, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, brought Selig and Fehr to Capitol Hill for tense hearings on steroids and urged both sides to implement a new policy with a suspension for first offense. After doing just that, baseball is once again facing Congressional scrutiny.

“Our task was to design a program that would seek to rid our game of steroids. The evidence so far, and I emphasize so far, suggests that program is working,” Fehr said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t discuss and consider potential changes as they arise, but it doesn’t make what we have now irrelevant either.”

MLB and the players’ union have conducted several preliminary meetings on Selig’s proposal, but Fehr has not given any further indication on his willingness to accept the terms. He said yesterday he needs to conduct more canvassing among the players to gather their views.

Even if Fehr and the players agree to the tougher policy, some legislators are anxious to pass a uniform federal standard. Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican and Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, said “we’ve gone far too long waiting for the marketplace” to police itself.

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