WASHINGTON -- Looking up at dozens of empty black leather
chairs and a lone lawmaker, a former NFL player testified to
Congress about his use of steroids and how that might have
contributed to his heart disease.
As someone out of pro football for two decades, Steve Courson
said he couldn't address whether steroid use is prevalent today.
In a hearing that produced far less theater, attention and
acrimony than last month's look at steroids in Major League
Baseball, House lawmakers who are skeptical that professional
leagues are doing enough moved forward Wednesday in their work
toward a law setting drug-testing rules for major U.S. sports.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told the House Government Reform
Committee that such legislation would be a mistake.
"When it comes to process and other considerations, including
discipline, we can deal with our own sport better than a uniform
standard, which in many cases can become the lowest common
denominator," he said.
Worried that steroid use among pro athletes encourages youths to
try the drugs, the committee is examining the testing policies of
more than a half-dozen sports.
"How is the average American supposed to look at the size,
strength and speed of today's NFL linebackers and not conclude that
they might be taking performance-enhancing drugs?" asked committee
chairman, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.
Said Tagliabue: "We don't feel that there is rampant cheating
in our sport."
The proceedings were not as contentious as on March 17, when
Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other current and former baseball
stars were compelled to appear and faced direct questions about
whether they and other players used steroids. Baseball commissioner
Bud Selig, also a witness, was roundly criticized for his sport's
policy, which lawmakers said was too lenient.
On Wednesday, the committee never heard an estimate of how
widespread steroid use might be in the NFL, in part, perhaps,
because they didn't have many players to ask.
Only two NFL players -- both retired -- were present. One was Hall
of Famer Gene Upshaw, who retired from the game in 1982 and was
invited because he is chief executive of the NFL Players
The other was Courson, an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh
Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1978-85. He was on a heart
transplant list for four years but credited diet and exercise with
reversing the condition.
In a hearing room where all but one congressman left because of
a floor vote, he said steroid use in the NFL began in the 1960s and
was prevalent in his day.
But asked by the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman of
California, what percentage of pro football players use steroids
today, Courson said: "That would be very hard for me to determine.
I've been out of the game for 20 years."
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said if Congress was "serious
about investigating steroid use among football players today,"
lawmakers should hear from current players.
Davis promised more hearings and said the NBA will be next.
NBA commissioner David Stern said the league "absolutely"
would testify if asked, although he noted there are time
constraints right now, with the playoffs and labor negotiations.
Those talks between the league and its players' union include
the possibility of expanded testing for performance-enhancing
drugs, Stern said at the Wizards-Bulls playoff game in Chicago.
The NBA joined the NHL, Major League Soccer, the ATP and other
sports bodies in turning over requested documents about its
drug-testing policy to the committee two weeks ago.
Davis said he and Waxman are working with Sen. John McCain,
R-Ariz., on legislation that would put sports' banned substance
lists and testing protocols under the auspices of the White House
drug chief, but might leave penalties up to the leagues.
Yet Congress has shown over the years a reluctance to legislate
professional sports policy.
"Let everybody compete under the same rules and the same
platforms and that's what an across-the-board policy does," Davis
said after the hearing.
The NFL began testing in 1987, added suspensions in 1989, and
instituted year-round random testing in 1990. Fifty-four players
have been suspended, and Tagliabue said an additional 57 retired
after testing positive. A first offense carries a four-game ban.
On the eve of the hearing, the NFL announced it is tripling from
two to six the number of random offseason tests that players can
face. The league is also adding to its list of banned
"We would be naive to not be aware that there are people out
there who are trying to stay ahead of the curve," Upshaw said.
"As soon as we find out about something, we do something about
Lawmakers generally praised the NFL for its cooperation. More
than one committee member said the hearing was a "breath of fresh
air" compared to the session with Major League Baseball.
Still, lawmakers asked 10 witnesses whether the size of today's
NFL players is evidence of steroid use. They criticized football's
penalties as too lenient and asked whether amphetamines should be
banned and when growth hormone will be tested for.
And they asked about a CBS report that a South Carolina doctor
wrote steroid prescriptions in 2003 for three Carolina Panthers who
played in that season's Super Bowl. Tagliabue said the league is
"The percentage of NFL players who test positive for steroids
is very low," Waxman said. "Is this because the policy is working
or is this because players have figured out how to avoid
He never got a direct answer.