- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

Lawmakers called the NBA’s steroids policy “pathetic” and “a joke” in hearings before a House committee yesterday.

NBA commissioner David Stern and players union chief Billy Hunter appeared before the House Government Reform Committee investigating the use of steroids in pro sports, and they received the same kind of scathing criticism that was heaped upon Major League Baseball officials in March.

Henry Waxman, California Democrat, called the NBA’s policy “simply inadequate.” Rep. Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said the NBA’s policy is “weaker than the NFL or MLB’s.” William Lacy Clay, Missouri Democrat, called it “a joke.” And Rep. Stephen Lynch, Massachusetts Democrat, said: “It is, in my opinion, rather pathetic.”

Committe chairman Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, said the NBA has not been as suspect of rampant steroid use as MLB, but he said he did not know whether that meant there is no problem or whether offenders simply aren’t being caught.

“How do we know for sure there’s no steroid problem in the NBA if its testing policies are so weak?” Davis said.

Davis plans to introduce uniform testing legislation next week that includes a two-year ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second offense.

Stern responded to the criticism by proposing more in-season tests, doubling the penalty for a first offense to 10 games and banning players for a third positive test.

Hunter said the union favors “some changes” as it heads into contentious negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement that expires at the end of June. Talks broke off Wednesday, and Stern said he’s concerned about a potential lockout in the fall.

Around the corner in the Rayburn Building, Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican and chairman of the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee, and Rep. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, pressed NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and players union chief Gene Upshaw about supporting a modified bill.

“We’re certainly supportive of drug-free sports,” Tagliabue said after his testimony. “We’ve made that clear for [18] years. We think the legislation has disadvantages that outweigh the advantages. If there’s a way of recrafting it along the lines that we suggested, then we would reassess it.”

Upshaw joined Tagliabue in expressing concern about Stearns’ proposed two-year suspension for a first offense as well as the administration of the testing program by an international, rather than a domestic, agency.

Both leaders raised the issue of the removal of drug testing from the collective bargaining process, which they argued could open the door to lawsuits by players who test positive.

“We believe strongly [in testing] … [but] if you lose two years in a suspension for a first offense, your career is basically over,” said Upshaw, who added the average NFL player’s career lasts about four years. “History has proven that our program has worked. If you are guilty in the NFL, you will be suspended.”

Tagliabue pointed out that of the 54 players suspended for steroid use — each for four games, losing 25 percent of his annual base salary — only two tested positive a second time and both retired rather than face “the embarassment” and the more severe penalties of being a repeat offender.

He also said only one prospective rookie — former Northwestern defensive tackle Luis Castillo this year — has tested positive in more than a decade at the NFL’s scouting combine.

Upshaw noted players who are suspended can’t return to action until they are proven clean and that they are tested 24 times annually for the remainder of their careers. And Tagliabue said while NFL players are now randomly tested up to 10 times a year, they would be tested just once annually under Stearns’ Drug Free Sports Act.

“I don’t want to see our ability to run the best [testing] program in the country limited,” said Tagliabue, who added the NFL spends $10 million annually on its testing regimen.

Upshaw and Tagliabue both pointed out that in the wake of the testosterone scandal involving three then-Carolina Panthers, the NFL has reduced the threshold for a positive test for that substance while increasing the number of random offseason tests from two to six.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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