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Baseball Drug Policy Draws Senate's Ire

Lawmakers single out the sport for criticism and threaten legislation over 'doping epidemic.'

March 11, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sport in the United States, and in particular Major League Baseball, is at grave risk of becoming a "fraud" because of a "doping epidemic," the chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee said Wednesday, calling for "affirmative and rapid" action and indicating "legislative remedies" may be appropriate.

"The status quo is not acceptable," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a committee hearing marked by sharp attacks against Major League Baseball's drug-testing policies, which were portrayed repeatedly as weak and ineffectual when compared with those adopted in recent years by the NFL and Olympic sports.

A first-time positive steroid test in an Olympic sport, for instance, means a two-year ban from competition. In the NFL, it results in a four-game suspension without pay. In Major League Baseball, it means counseling.

Even so, the head of the major league players' union, Don Fehr, made plain Wednesday that immediate change in baseball's testing program was unlikely. He cited privacy concerns, saying the wholesale drug-testing of players turns the presumption of innocence on its head and is thus "at odds with fundamental principles of which we in this country have long and rightly been proud."

Asked point-blank by McCain whether he would be willing, right now, to bring baseball's program in line with NFL and Olympic-style policies, Commissioner Bud Selig said, "The answer is unequivocally yes."

Fehr declined to make the same commitment.

The pressure on baseball from Congress is unlikely to diminish. The battery of questions directed at Fehr for more than two hours underscores the significance with which Congress now views the issue of steroid use in sports.

McCain and Fehr are longtime friends. Last year, McCain asked Fehr to supervise a blue-ribbon panel aimed at restructuring the U.S. Olympic Committee. That McCain subjected his friend to public scrutiny, with Fehr physically weak, recovering from gall-bladder surgery less than two weeks ago, is telling.

Referring to Congress, McCain said, "We will have to act in some way."

The reason, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said, concerns more than sport. "It's about values. It's about our culture," he said. "It's about who we define ourselves to be."

The session was called after several unprecedented anti-doping events in recent months, including President Bush's call during the State of the Union address to stop steroid use in sports and a 42-count indictment against four men stemming from a San Francisco grand jury investigation that included testimony from dozens of baseball, football and track and field stars.

One of the men indicted is Victor Conte, founder of the Burlingame, Calif.-based Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, suspected by authorities as the source of a so-called designer steroid called THG. All four of those indicted have maintained their innocence.

As part of the BALCO investigation, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week, federal investigators were told that steroids were given to San Francisco Giant star Barry Bonds, baseball's single-season home run king; the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield; and three other baseball players. The players have denied using steroids.

Meantime, Congress is considering bills that would curb the use and sale of THG, discovered last summer, and steroid-like substances such as androstenedione, widely publicized during St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire's 1998 chase of Roger Maris' home run record and still legally available over the counter at stores nationwide. Bonds, with 73 home runs in 2001, broke McGwire's 1998 mark of 70; Maris hit 61 in 1961.

Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Dec. 30 that it would ban the sale of the herbal supplement ephedra after the death last year of Baltimore Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler and others. Ephedra, a stimulant, is banned by the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency, among others.

Perhaps, McCain and others suggested Wednesday, a "tipping point" in the campaign against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports had been reached.

"A national explosion, all of a sudden," said Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). Added Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.): "It's an outrage."

Terry Madden, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said that now was "the last, best chance to stop doping in all sports, Olympic and professional sports."

McCain said at the hearing to Madden, Selig, Fehr, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL union chief Gene Upshaw: "Each of you -- and particularly Major League Baseball -- has a legitimacy problem" owing to what he called a "cloud of suspicion that looms ominously" over U.S. sport.

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