Playing hardball without players

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- All the key players gathered before the Senate's Commerce Committee on Wednesday to discuss steroid use in sports.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and players union chief Donald Fehr were there. So, too, were their pro football counterparts, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw.

Everyone, that is, except for the players themselves.

As speculation mounts about just who among baseball's power hitters are among the 5 to 7 percent to test positive for steroids last season, and in the wake of the U.S. Attorney General personally announcing the indictments of four people alleged to have supplied athletes, both professional and amateur, with a substance specifically designed to skirt the law, not one player was brought to Capitol Hill to testify about just how pervasive the use of steroids among athletes is today.

"We're at a level now where we have to first get to the people that control and run sports," said Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), who last week introduced to the House of Representatives the Anabolic Act of 2004, which seeks to ban steroid precursors such as androstenedione and designer steroid THG as well as increase penalties for illegal drug trafficking around sports facilities. "We have to talk to the leaders of the sports before getting to the individual athletes themselves will have any relevance."

None of the players whose names have been associated with the BALCO scandal, including Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, were subpoened to testify. And neither were the records of athlete testimonies in the grand jury investigation that ultimately led to the indictment of four individuals connected to the San Francisco-area laboratory that is alleged to have funneled the designer steroid THG to players.

"Those who have been referred to recently in the media were not summoned here because there is a grand jury investigation ongoing," Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos said. "Maybe at some future time, (committee chairman) Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) may have the feeling that he should hear from them directly, but probably now is not the appropriate time."

Two active baseball players who failed the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency steroid test during a U.S. Olympic training camp last year, Montreal Expos outfielder Terrmel Sledge and Anaheim Angels reliever Derrick Turnbow, were not called to testify either.

"The current players are in spring training, and Don's really in the position to negotiate change," reasoned Bob DuPuy, baseball's president and chief operating officer. "I don't think it's necessary that a player be here. I think what is necessary is that we move the needle toward a zero-tolerance policy."

As a recently retired player who was known to have used sports supplement, calling Mark McGwire to Washington might have made sense. Perhaps particularly so given that Sweeney's bill seeks to make it illegal to buy androstenedione.

McCain said that when McGwire admitted to using "andro" during his historic home run battle with Sammy Sosa in 1998, sales of the supplement increased five-fold. Sweeney said his son once asked him, "How bad could (andro) be if Mark McGwire used it to set the records he set?"

Although androstenedione is not on the banned substances list, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) said McGwire's use of the supplement causes him to still count Roger Maris as the all-time home run king, perhaps also implicating by absence Sammy Sosa, who also passed Maris on the single-season home run list.

Tagliabue, Upshaw and USADA chief executive officer Terry Madden were invited to speak Wednesday, but the majority of the questions were focused on Selig and Fehr.

Several members of the Senate said they had difficulty believing Fehr was representing the best interest of the players, given the baseball's lenient drug policy compared to other sports. Under its current policy, a baseball player who tests positive for steroids five times will receive a $100,000 fine and be banned from the sport for a year. A first-time steroids offender is not required to miss a single game. In contrast, an NFL player who tests positive for steroids for the first time is forced to miss a quarter of the regular season -- four games -- without pay.

"I would think probably 70 or 80 percent of the players themselves would favor a tougher drug testing policy," said Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.).

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) cited a July 2002 study commissioned by USA Today that indicated 79 percent of players wanted to be tested.

"A few of them are speaking up saying we want (testing); we don't want this cloud of suspicion," Dorgan said. "I just don't understand why this is even part of collective bargaining."

Although some players have asked for a more stringent policy, most players haven't publicly bashed the drug testing policy en mass. Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz was one of the few who spoke out, recently calling baseball's current policy a "smoke screen."

Fehr defended the actions of the players' association, saying the idea that union leaders are unilaterally acting separate from the wishes of their members, is unfounded.

"The notion that somehow the players are divorced from the union that represents them is simply wrong," Fehr said.

Fehr said before the collective bargaining negotiations got heated two years ago he went to each team and spoke to players about what they wanted in a drug testing plan. The majority of players agreed that they should not be tested without cause, he said. Random testing, as provided in baseball's current collective bargaining agreement, will be in place for the 2004 season since at least 5 percent of players tested positive last year.

The wishes of the baseball players were then juxtaposed with Upshaw's testimony about the NFL players' embrace of drug testing.

"They demanded that we get (steroids) out of football -- meaning zero tolerance," Upshaw said. "We don't want it in the game, we are not concerned about privacy, we're not concerned about search-and-seizure, and we want it out of the game and that's what we did."

"I don't speak to NFL players," Fehr said, responding to a question by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who wanted to know how baseball and football players could feel so differently about drug testing in their respective sports.

"Football is a contact and mass times acceleration equals force," Fehr said. "They made their judgments in their collective bargaining relationship and they believe were the appropriate decisions to make. Players in baseball did also. If that mindset changes, if in the discussions we have in the short term or long term suggest otherwise, that will change."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com