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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

We Have Canseco to Thank for Tougher Steroid Rules

November 13, 2005|Jim Litke | Associated Press

The sports pages have been chockfull of apologies lately, suggesting we've become a nation of scolds -- or just a lot better informed about some things than we used to be.

If the latter is true, and the subject is steroids, we have Jose Canseco to thank. He might be the last guy you would pick to teach anybody about anything. But stay with me for a moment here while I propose that he taught fans a valuable civics lesson -- namely that the system works.

Yes, he's a snitch. Yes, his book (like it needs another free plug), "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big," is nauseatingly self-serving. And yes, he wrote it only because he was low on money and out of things to sell.

But consider: He turned out to be the match that lit the flame ... that was stoked by the BALCO investigation and fanned by media ... then turned into a raging bonfire when Congress poured gasoline on it with a series of daylong hearings.

And as a result of all that, sometime in the near future, America's pro sports leagues will get a much more reasonable steroids law tacked to their locker room doors than would have seemed possible a year ago.

It will set out reasonable penalties for cheaters, starting with a half-season for the first positive test; a full season for the second; and retain the wildly popular "strike three" option, a lifetime ban for any athlete dumb enough to get caught a third time.

It will also provide fans with some certainty that the games they're watching are reasonably clean.

And here's the bonus: It will become the law of the sports landscapes without any more hysteria; without dozens, and maybe hundreds, more billable hours of collective bargaining; without too many people going to jail for too long; and with only a handful of reputations ruined, most of them deservedly so.

If Rafael Palmeiro turns out to be the last link in that chain, tough luck for him. And at least he has the consolation of knowing it could have been worse. Congress was still smarting after Palmeiro wagged a finger in their direction, and some members fired back with purpose pitches, on which dangerous words were scribbled, like "perjury" and "indictment."

But after an investigation, cooler heads prevailed with Thursday's announcement that Palmeiro would not be charged with lying, even though he failed a steroid test six weeks after testifying under oath he "never" used the performance-enhancing drug. There wasn't enough evidence, investigators concluded, to make the charge stick.

"That's not a finding of innocence," Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said in releasing a 44-page report, "but it's a finding that we could not substantiate perjury."

Palmeiro's latest apology made one more try at clearing his name. "I have never INTENTIONALLY (emphasis mine) taken steroids and I strongly oppose the illegal use of steroids by athletes or anyone else."

So we can just consider his sentence reduced to a decade or so of being shamed. Palmeiro got his, something he should have seen coming the moment the galley proofs on Canseco's book started making the rounds.

Less newsy, but more significant was a related development: A steroid bill containing the aforementioned penalties reached the floor of the Senate, but was put on indefinite hold by an unidentified senator.

A spokesman for Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., one of the bill's sponsors, relayed the following from Bunning in an e-mail to The Associated Press: "We're making progress on resolving the concerns of a few Senators. They are eager to resolve this quickly and not be seen as the protectors of athletes taking steroids that cheat the fans and most importantly and above all else harm our children.

"Because in the end, this is really all about protecting our kids who look up to these players as role models and try to emulate them."

Look past the "protecting our kids" piousness, read between the lines, and what we're probably looking at is this: Beyond the usual horse-trading for votes among lawmakers, most figured the bill needs to be softened further before it has a reasonable chance of passing.

It turns out all those short hops down to Washington by MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS Messrs. Selig, Tagliabue, Stern, Bettman and Garber were worth the trip -- or else that the cabal of commissioners and their rich, connected owners have powerful friends in high places. Either way, the second the bill clears Congress, their leagues get a much fairer, much more cost-effective drug policy in place without much further ado.

Which means all of them should take a moment to dash off apologies of their own to baseball players union boss Donald Fehr, who wound up taking most of the heat and much of the scorn by holding out for a more reasonable punishment schedule.

Right. And they'll get around to it as soon as they finish addressing all those thank-you cards to Jose Canseco.

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