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Thursday, April 28, 2005 

Football on the Hill

Yesterday's congressional hearing on the NFL steroid policy was a sharp contrast from last month's session with Major League Baseball. No current players testified, which prevented the members of the House from acting like star-struck fans. While commissioner Paul Tagliabue was better prepared than Bud Selig:

Rep. Christopher Shays ... said to Tagliabue: "Mr. Commissioner, I want to thank you for knowing what the hell is going on. With all due respect, the commissioner of baseball had not even read the document that they had given us."

that didn't spare the NFL from criticism.

The committee acknowledged the strength of the NFL testing policy, calling it "the top of the heap in professional sports", but found fault with the league's penalties for offenders:

... a four game suspension for a first offense, a six-game suspension for a second offense, and a 12-month suspension for a third offense. Several committee members supported penalties more in line with the Olympics, which suspends players for two years for a first offense and bans them for life for a second offense.

Some representatives expressed concern that NFL players caught using steroids were not subject to criminal prosecution, and when Tagliabue tried to defend the league's position, he ruffled a few feathers:

Tagliabue defended the league's penalty system, asserting that suspending players for 12 months, for example, could all but end their careers.

"In some cases, it would be a young man whose only path out of the ghetto was football," Tagliabue said, "and he would go back and never return."

That drew a strong rebuke from Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who said he lives in the shadow of the stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play... "I live in the ghetto, all right?" Cummings told Tagliabue. "I represent people who can't afford to go to the game. I represent people who, if they're caught with a Schedule III drug [like Steroids], go to jail. I have no sympathy, none, for people who cheat."

Ouch. Tagliabue could have used a better expression...

To me, the Olympic comparison is not fair - the Olympics are only held once every four years - but the NFL could suspend players a year on the second offense and ban them for life if caught again. As for criminal penalties, that's a tougher call, since most NFL players can afford to pay high-priced doctors to legally prescribe designer drugs.

The bottom line of the hearings so far is that new drug technology will continue to make it tougher to test athletes for performance-enhancing supplements. Tougher penalties would help, but the real key will be the willingness of professional sports to invest in on-going research to improve testing. The cost of such an effort might force the major sports leagues to cooperate with each other, before the Federal government takes matters into its own hands.

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