Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A group of influential Capitol Hill lawmakers yesterday introduced the Clean Sports Act of 2005, a federal effort to impose uniform steroid policies on major professional sports leagues and make good on repeated threats to correct perceived dawdling on the issue by team owners and players.

The bill — to be introduced in both houses of Congress and backed by a large collection of Hill leaders, including Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican — aims to implement Olympic-style drug testing and penalties on the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, led by a minimum two-year suspension on a first positive test and a lifetime ban for a second.

“We wish we were not into this. We’d rather be doing other things,” said McCain, who has pressured MLB for years to tighten its penalties for steroid use. “If the pro leagues had taken action, we wouldn’t be here. But they simply haven’t.”

The bill follows similar steroid legislation introduced last week by Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican. Stearns, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, like Davis has summoned the top leaders in pro sports to Washington to testify on their drug policies.

But Davis said yesterday his bill enjoys more prominent support; calls for more drug tests a year for each player and firmer testing protocols; lays out a broader appeals process; and empowers the Office of National Drug Control Policy to oversee the testing and enforcement and add additional sports leagues to be subject to the federal rules. Stearns wants that power in the hands of the commerce secretary.

Ultimately, a conference will be held on merging the legislation. In the meantime, Stearns will lead a subcommittee markup of his bill today.

On top of steroids and similar performance-enhancing agents, the Clean Sports Act also seeks to test for amphetamines, which have long been a part of baseball but are not a prime focus of MLB’s existing drug policy.

Several of the lawmakers sponsoring the steroid legislation predicted quick passage in both the House and Senate since the desire to fight steroid use in sports enjoys unusually strong bipartisan support. And despite the reluctance expressed by McCain and others to enter into the issue, the lawmakers are engaging in a top-down approach in which they seek to eliminate steroid use by scholastic and collegiate athletes by first stamping out performance-enhancing agents among their heroes.

“This bill is greased. It’s going to move very rapidly,” said Mark Souder, Indiana Republican.

Added McCain: “Baseball will not be allowed to filibuster this.”

Currently, the major sports leagues have penalties ranging from counseling to a suspension of 25 percent of the regular season for an initial positive test for steroids.

During several steroids hearings on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, commissioners for each of the major sports leagues said they generally opposed any federal steroids legislation, feeling an initial two-year suspension was too harsh and that the matter was best served by collective bargaining.

Only MLB commissioner Bud Selig gave his reluctant support for federal intervention and only if the MLB Players Association does not accept his new “three strikes and you’re out” proposal in which a player would receive a 50-game suspension for an initial positive test, 100 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third.

Davis, calling steroids in pro sports “a national public health crisis,” yesterday left the door open to pulling back the proposed legislation if the leagues independently toughen their penalties for steroid use. But he added, “We’ll see what happens, but right now, it’s full speed ahead.” His bill does allow for reduced penalties for players who unknowingly ingest banned substances or provide information on other violators.

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