Congressional hearing takes aim at drug legislation

The U.S. House of Representatives takes another look at performance-enhancing drugs in sports on Wednesday. And this time, Congress just might see its way to making a real difference.

New laws requiring stiffer penalties and more frequent testing will be on the agenda.

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection has invited testimony from a who's who in sports, many of whom likely will resist the prospect of the legislation expected to be introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., when Wednesday's hearing is over. Rush's planned bill likely will demand at least five surprise drugs tests on each professional athlete each year, along with penalties far stiffer than any now in place under the union contracts that currently govern testing and punishment in the four major professional sports: baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

The anticipated proposal from Rush and others on the committee would call for suspensions of half of a season for a first offense, an entire season for a second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third offense. Under current union contracts, baseball players face suspensions of 50 games for a first offense and 100 games for a second offense. NFL players face a suspension of four games for a first offense and eight games for a second offense.

Rush and others seek to establish uniform testing and punishment in all four sports, eliminating the different approaches of the four varying union contracts now in force.

The witnesses scheduled to testify before the subcommittee include all four commissioners of the major sports: Roger Goodell of the NFL, Bud Selig of Major League Baseball, David Stern of the NBA and Gary Bettman of the NHL; as well as the leaders of all four players' unions: Gene Upshaw, Donald Fehr, Billy Hunter and Paul Kelly, respectively.

In addition, the subcommittee will hear from Myles Brand, the president of the NCAA; Jim Scherr, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee; and Travis T. Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Former Sen. George Mitchell, who led baseball's investigation into performance-enhancing drugs, will not appear but will offer written testimony.

According to a source close to the committee, that all-star cast of witnesses will allow the committee to take the next step and move Congress' role in the issue beyond the one played by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which held the Roger Clemens-Brian McNamee showdown earlier this month. The source said Wednesday's Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection hearing will begin to focus on legislation.

"Our interest is in the protection of the sports consumer," the committee source suggested. "The consumer must be able to buy a ticket and watch a game that is played on a level field by players who are free of these drugs and have been tested in a uniform and consistent way."

Any legislative proposal on testing and punishment would require a major change in American labor laws. Under current rules, which have been in place for generations, drug testing is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. If the workers, including professional athletes, in any industry are covered by a union contract, the union and the industry management must agree on testing and on punishment.

A radical change in that system was once viewed as unlikely. But politicians in both political parties now seem to be embracing the possibility, including Republican presidential aspirant Sen. John McCain. In 2005, after the first set of Capitol hearings on steroids, McCain supported a measure that would have taken control of drug testing and punishment away from each sport and required more rigorous testing and stiffer penalties.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., is one of many members of the U.S. Congress who believe that "cheating should not be collectively bargained."

Shays and others from both parties supported earlier bills known as the Drug Free Sports Act and the Clean Sports Act, which called for stiffer penalties and more frequent testing. Those bills will be the basis for the new legislation Rush is planning.

Introduced in 2005, the Drug Free Sports Act (H.R. 3084) was approved by the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. It was then approved by the full House Committee on Energy and Commerce and sent to the floor of the House. It died there without consideration and without any vote.

After the hearing on Wednesday, Rush and his committee will confer to determine the framework of the new bill.

"Performance-enhancing drugs threaten not only the health of our athletes, but the very integrity of all sports," said Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, in a statement Tuesday. "I believe strongly that athletes need to succeed on their own abilities, not by cheating the game, the fans or themselves. Since Congress last looked at this issue, many great strides have been made to rid the ill effects these drugs pose. However, it is imperative for Congress to take a hard look at what is still going on today in these sports and to address the future challenges facing the integrity of these games. By tackling these challenges now, we in Congress can work with the industry to preserve the future integrity of American sports."

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.