WASHINGTON (April 27, 2005) -- A law establishing uniform drug-testing rules for major U.S. sports would be a mistake, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told Congress, while defending his league's steroid policy under questioning from lawmakers who were far less adversarial than during last month's baseball hearing.
"We don't feel that there is rampant cheating in our sport," Tagliabue told the House Government Reform Committee.
Members of the panel asked whether the size of today's NFL players is evidence of steroid use, they criticized football's penalties as too lenient, and asked whether amphetamines should be banned and when growth hormone will be tested for.
"How is the average American supposed to look at the size, strength and speed of today's NFL linebackers and not conclude that they might be taking performance-enhancing drugs?" asked chairman Tom Davis, R-Va.
Tagliabue countered: "We're certainly not going to jump to the conclusion that because we have larger athletes today there is increased steroid use in the National Football League. I think it's nonsense."
On the whole, congressmen generally praised the NFL for its cooperation, with more than one calling this session a "breath of fresh air" compared to Major League Baseball's hearing.
Still, the committee didn't get a direct answer as to how widespread steroid use might be in the NFL. Lawmakers tried to gauge that level in baseball on March 17, when an 11-hour hearing featured Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and other past and current stars.
In this hearing, only two former NFL players were present, and one was Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw, invited because he's the NFL Players Association chief executive.
The other was Steve Courson, an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1978-85. He has admitted using steroids and said they probably played a role in his developing a heart condition.
Courson delivered his statement to dozens of empty black leather chairs: Only one member of the committee was present, because others left for a floor vote.
Later, when asked by ranking Democrat Henry Waxman of California what percentage of pro football players use steroids today, Courson said: "That would be very hard for me to determine. I've been out of the game for 20 years."
Even a congressman pointed out the contrast in the witness lists.
"If this committee is serious about investigating steroid use among football players today, well, we should probably start by talking to some of today's football players," Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch said.
Davis promised more hearings and said the NBA will be next. He said he, Waxman and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are working on legislation that would put sports' banned substance lists and testing protocols under the auspices of the White House drug czar but might leave penalties up to the leagues.
While boosting strength, steroids can lead to heart attacks, strokes, cancer, sterility and mood swings; using most steroids without a doctor's prescription for medical purposes has been illegal since 1991.
"Let everybody compete under the same rules and the same platforms and that's what an across-the-board policy does," Davis said after the hearing. "I don't know how the public feels about this, but I think members are pretty united on this. It's a huge issue and it needs to be taken care of."
"If we've got to start outsourcing or off-shoring our drug programs, then I think we're in trouble," he told Waxman in the closest thing to a contentious exchange.
"When it comes to process and other considerations, including discipline, we can deal with our own sport better than a uniform standard, which in many cases can become the lowest common denominator."
Baseball banned steroids in September 2002 and instituted mandatory 10-day suspensions this season. The NHL does not test players for performance-enhancing drugs, while first-time offenders are suspended for five games in the NBA.
The NFL began testing in 1987, added suspensions in 1989, and instituted year-round random testing in 1990. Fifty-four players have been suspended, and Tagliabue said another 57 retired after testing positive. A first offense carries a four-game ban.
Several lawmakers referred to a CBS report that a South Carolina doctor wrote steroid prescriptions in 2003 for three Carolina Panthers who played in that season's Super Bowl.
"The percentage of NFL players who test positive for steroids is very low," Waxman said. "Is this because the policy is working or is this because players have figured out how to avoid detection?"
The Associated Press News Service
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