Hill Anti-Steroid Plan Quietly Reshaped

Posted May 13, 2005 at 5:20pm

The House Government Reform Committee has pulled the plug on a controversial plan that would have set up an organization to use money from sports leagues and players’ unions to fund a media blitz against steroids.

Last month, early talk of the plan inspired concern from league and union lobbyists, who said they worried how contributions to the organization could be considered voluntary, given the committee’s ongoing investigation into their handling of steroid use among athletes.

A source close to the discussions said sports lobbyists communicated their concerns as details of the plan emerged, convincing committee staffers to back away from it.

“It dawned on them, after a number of meetings, with the same points raised repeatedly by different groups, that this thing was far too unwieldy,” the source said. “It was crushed under its own weight.”

Robert White, a committee spokesman, declined to discuss how the committee made the decision to scrap the plan, which would have established a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, funded by the leagues and unions.

“Structures were never that important,” he said. “It was just about getting to the goal of having the leagues and players engaged in finding solutions to the problem.”

The organization, called Zero Tolerance, was meant to be established, staffed and given a budget and agenda by the end of May, according to the most recent draft document circulated by committee staff among sports lobbyists. But now, its mission has shifted.

White said that Zero Tolerance will be set up as an informal roundtable, including Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and retired players Curt Schilling and Frank Thomas, who had been slated to be co-chairman of the organization.

The planned media blitz is being replaced by a toned-down public education campaign, for which league representatives — and some players, possibly including the Baltimore Orioles’ Rafael Palmeiro — will travel the country at their own expense to discuss the dangers of steroid use.

Davis and Waxman are also working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an outspoken critic of steroid abuse in sports, on legislation to address the issue. An aide to McCain said it could be introduced as early as this week.

It is unclear if bills by Davis, Waxman and McCain would pre-empt the committee’s ongoing effort to develop recommendations.

The decision on Zero Tolerance comes as league and union officials turn their attention to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. League commissioners and some union heads for baseball, hockey, soccer, basketball and football will appear before that panel Wednesday and Thursday to discuss a bill that would ban drugs and impose government testing across all sports.

A release announcing the hearings touted “an all-star cast from the professional sports world” to “headline” the discussion. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig will be among the first to appear Wednesday, and football commissioner Paul Tagliabue will lead off Thursday testimony.

The measure being considered, sponsored by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), was introduced in late April, as the Zero Tolerance campaign was taking shape.

Under the bill, the Commerce Department would be responsible for establishing a policy for all professional sports leagues. It would administer random tests to all athletes, at least once a year.

Players caught using performance-enhancing drugs would receive a two-year suspension for their first offense and a lifetime ban for their second. And leagues not adopting the new rules would be fined $5 million, and $1 million for every following day of noncompliance.

One Major League Baseball insider said that baseball officials had hoped to settle the issue themselves in talks with the players union.

“This is clearly a public outcry for a seat at the table at which [Congress] is not entitled to sit,” the insider said. “That said, steroids have no place in our game, and hopefully the end result of all this will be a drug-free sport.”

Indeed, the issue has marked a rare moment of agreement between the league and its players association, as the two attempt to beat back a Congressional intervention, perhaps equally rare for its bipartisanship.

Spokesmen for the Commerce and Government Reform committees said they are not coordinating their efforts.

Though Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has predicted Stearns’ bill will be marked up this year, a spokesman for Barton said he was unsure whether the chairman had talked to House leadership about the bill.

Meanwhile, sports lobbyists face a potential third front in the House, as the Judiciary Committee recently requested a review by the Congressional Research Service of the league’s testing regimes and their effectiveness.

Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for the committee, said depending on what the review finds, the committee could pursue legislation of its own.

“It’s an issue we continue to aggressively monitor,” he said. “Obviously, people are intent on cheating, and we need to be very aggressive in making sure criminal laws are kept up to date.”