NBA's drug policy takes heat from Congress

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2005

WASHINGTON — The NBA's steroids policy was branded ''pathetic'' and ''a joke'' by lawmakers Thursday, and the head of a congressional panel said he will propose a law creating drug-testing standards for the four major professional sports leagues.

House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., opened a hearing focusing on the NBA by saying he'll produce a uniform testing bill next week. Davis promised the legislation he's drafting with ranking Democrat Henry Waxman of California and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., ''will have more teeth than other bills introduced.''

Davis didn't go into specifics, but Waxman said their legislation would follow the Olympic model and would call for a two-year ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second offense.

Those mirror the penalties in the Drug Free Sports Act, introduced last month by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee conducting a separate inquiry into steroid use.

Testifying before that panel Thursday, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Stearns' bill ''is not appropriate to be enacted in its present form. ... At least as it applies to the NFL, we feel that it is unnecessary.''

At the same time, in a nearby hearing room, Davis' committee was directing the sort of criticism at NBA commissioner David Stern and union leader Billy Hunter that it heaped on Major League Baseball officials in a March 17 hearing.

Since then, though, commissioner Bud Selig has proposed toughening baseball's drug policy, including punishing first offenders with 50-game suspensions instead of 10-day bans, issuing lifetime suspensions for a third offense, and banning amphetamines.

''Our investigation already has spawned results, evidenced most profoundly by Major League Baseball's abrupt about-face on the need for more stringent testing,'' Davis said.

He said the bill he'll propose would cover baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL.

Washington Wizards guard Juan Dixon and Houston Rockets trainer Keith Jones also testified Thursday, and both said they didn't know of any steroid use in the NBA.

''Certainly, the NBA is not suffering under the same cloud of steroid-use suspicion that has been hovering over other professional sports,'' Davis said.

But, he continued, ''How do we know for sure there's no steroid problem in the NBA if its testing policies are so weak?''

Waxman called the NBA's policy ''simply inadequate.'' Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, called it ''a joke.'' Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said the NBA's policy is ''weaker than the NFL or MLB's.'' And Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, said: ''It is, in my opinion, rather pathetic.''

Stern repeated what he told Stearns' subcommittee Wednesday: He has told Hunter that he wants to add more in-season tests, double the penalty for a first offense to 10 games, and kick players out of the league for a third positive test.

''The union supports some changes,'' Hunter said.

That didn't draw much enthusiasm from lawmakers, with Indiana Republican Mark Souder telling Stern: ''It's a little too little, and it's a little too late.''

Stern and Hunter said the issue will be addressed in negotiations to replace their collective bargaining agreement, which expires June 30. The league broke off talks Wednesday, and Stern painted a bleak picture Thursday.

''I'm not confident, because we're confounded as to how we can make a deal at this point,'' he said after testifying. ''I'm concerned that there will be a lockout.''

During the hearing, Lynch pointed out that the NBA's current program calls for in-season testing of veteran players only if there is ''reasonable cause.'' Noting that one of the effects of steroid use is violent behavior, the congressman asked Hunter whether the melee involving players and fans at a game in November between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons constituted such cause.

That led to the most contentious exchange of the day, with Hunter calling Lynch's question ''a quantum leap.''

''I'm not saying it was caused by steroid use. I'm saying you don't know,'' Lynch said.

They went back and forth, interrupting each other, before Stern joined in.

''On behalf of the players of the National Basketball Association, I would like to say that the guilt that you seek to attribute to them on the basis of this policy is ill-taken and very unfair,'' Stern said.

That drew a retort from Lynch, to which Stern responded: ''It's a free country, and I would just like to disagree with your approach, that's all.''

In Stearns' hearing, the NFL generally was commended for its drug-testing policy. Tagliabue, though, called the proposed legislation's punishments ''draconian'' and said the bill ''seems to have disadvantages that outweigh the advantages.''

But he also said he would support it if changes were made, including shortening the suspensions, keeping testing jurisdiction out of the hands of an international agency, and making sure the league maintains its collective bargaining authority.


Associated Press reporter Elizabeth Wolfe contributed to this story.


The Sports Free Drug Act is H.R. 1862

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