House Panel Asks Leagues for Help

Posted April 25, 2005 at 6:33pm

As the National Football League prepares to take its turn testifying before Congress amid the widening controversy over steroids in sports, four professional leagues are grappling with an unusual request from the committee that oversees the hearings.

The House Government Reform Committee is asking the top professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey leagues and their unions to contribute what could be millions of dollars to a new organization that will act as an advisory panel on the issue, while also funding a media blitz to discourage young people from experimenting with steroids.

The request puts the sports leagues in an awkward spot. With the committee investigating each of them, can they really say no to the panel’s request?

“It seems pretty damn inappropriate,” said one source close to the discussions. “It just poses a lot of questions, and we’re a little panicked about it.”

A draft proposal that has been circulated to the leagues and their players’ unions calls for the advisory panel to be independent of Congress, though Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) would serve as honorary co-chairmen.

“The advisory committee is in fact, an ‘advisory committee’ and will function best as an independent organization,” the draft reads.

It continues, “However, it is critical that the Government Reform Committee play a primary role in the formation and setup of the advisory committee in order to ensure its solvency.”

Robert White, a spokesman for the House committee, said the panel has already sought advice from the House ethics committee on how Members and staff can be involved in the effort, which will be called Zero Tolerance. He said the committee would seek “more specific guidance” as the campaign takes shape.

White added that participation will be voluntary — and would not affect the Congressional inquiry into how the leagues are managing steroid abuse within their ranks.

“There will be absolutely no connection to the level of involvement of any league and the committee’s policy activities,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough.”

Sports lobbyists anxious about the proposal said that for now, they mostly have questions.

“How are we supposed to pay for it?” asked Philip Hochberg, a lobbyist for the National Hockey League who met Monday with committee staffers to discuss the effort. “What’s the basis on which the various leagues pay in? How do we divide it up? Should high schools contribute? We don’t have any answers yet.”

While Hochberg said the NHL is cooperating with the committee, he was unsure if or how it would participate in Zero Tolerance.

Likewise, the National Football League Players Association has made no commitment. Gene Upshaw, who will testify on behalf of the union on Wednesday, said the NFL and the players association already devote $10 million a year to discouraging steroid use among young people.

“I think the record will show we’re already out there,” he said. “I don’t know what this committee will be doing that’s not already being done.”

A timeline included in the draft calls for the organization to be established, staffed, and given a budget and an agenda by the end of May.

Over the summer and fall, the panel would conduct research and handle outreach to the media and the public. It would present recommendations to the House committee in November. What will happen after that is unclear.

Recommendations could include a decision on whether all sports should adopt a uniform drug-testing policy, according to the draft.

It calls for the effort to be set up as a 501(c)(3) organization, meaning contributions to it would be tax deductible.

Although the proposed effort has attracted relatively little media attention, it was actually announced publicly during the March 17 hearings on steroids in baseball that brought stars like Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco to Capitol Hill and briefly trained national attention on the issue and on Congress’ involvement.

That day, Davis announced that two current players — hurler Curt Schilling and slugger Frank Thomas — would head the campaign, which he described as “evolving.”

Before the hearing ended, representatives of at least one league called committee staffers to express interest, Government Reform spokesman White said. But since then, the mission of the campaign seems to have shifted, said the source close to the discussions.

“That description was much more along the lines of, ‘How do we send messages to kids?’” the source said. “Now, it’s more skewed toward making recommendations about what leagues should do. And it seems to be advocating issues unions tend to represent their players on.”

After the March hearings, Major League Baseball announced measures it was taking to strengthen its safeguards against steroid abuse. Even so, the committee is pressing ahead with its inquiry and reportedly is engaged in talks with the league about whether Congress would back off if the sport agreed to investigate itself.

Lucy Calautti, MLB’s top lobbyist, called the Zero Tolerance effort “too preliminary” to discuss in detail. But, she said, “We are very excited about the idea,” pointing to discussions at the hearing about preventing drug abuse in youngsters. “We at the commissioner’s office are certainly supportive of that.”