Members of a congressional committee praised the NFL's steroids policy during a five-hour hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill, but told the sport's leaders that they still can improve the program by closing loopholes that might enable players to evade detection while using performance-enhancing drugs.
The hearing was not nearly as combative as the 11-hour session that the same committee conducted in the same room last month with representatives of Major League Baseball on that sport's steroid issues. But members of the House Government Reform Committee questioned NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw about the sport's lack of a test for human growth hormone, the effectiveness of its test for testosterone and the lack of independent oversight of its testing program.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, left, and players' association chief Gene Upshaw, far right, acknowledge the NFL's steroid policy is not perfect.
(Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
"Drug-testing experts have long hailed football's testing program as the top of the heap in professional sports," Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee's chairman, said during the hearing. "It's a policy that the league and players association review quarterly and improve upon annually. It's a policy that has evolved along with advancements in science and technology. It's a policy with tough penalties that's getting tougher all the time. But it's not perfect, and that's one of the reasons we're here today."
Most committee members prefaced their comments by noting the difference between the tone of this hearing and that of last month's baseball proceeding. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) called the two sessions "light years" apart, and said to Tagliabue: "Mr. Commissioner, I want to thank you for knowing what the hell is going on. With all due respect, the commissioner of baseball [Bud Selig] had not even read the document that they had given us."
But Shays and other committee members attacked portions of the NFL's policy. Several lawmakers cited a recent report that three Carolina Panthers players filled testosterone prescriptions by a South Carolina physician within two weeks of playing in the Super Bowl in February 2004, and said they wondered whether players were finding ways to beat the league's tests and use steroids without being detected.
"The percentage of NFL players who test positive for steroids is very low," said the committee's ranking minority member, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "Is this because the policy is working, or is this because players have figured out how to avoid detection?"
Tagliabue and Waxman had the day's sharpest exchange, as Waxman questioned the commissioner about assertions by drug-testing experts that the league should turn oversight of its program over to the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Tagliabue responded tersely: "If we've got to start outsourcing or off-shoring our drug programs, then I think we're in trouble. . . . I think we can do it better here."
Davis said that he, Waxman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are working on legislation that would create uniform testing standards for all professional sports leagues. The committee plans to conduct a hearing involving the NBA next. Tagliabue said he believes that such legislation would be misguided. He said that leagues could contribute money toward common research but should administer their own programs separately.
"We can deal with our sport better than anyone," Tagliabue said.
Said Upshaw: "We want our program to be the best. . . . We didn't just come to this dance a couple weeks ago. We started out many years ago, and we'll stay until the dance is over."
Under the NFL's policy, players are subject to random testing year-round, and face a four-game suspension without pay for a first positive test. The league began testing in 1987 and instituted discipline for steroid use in 1989. According to the league, 111 players have tested positive under the steroid policy; 54 were suspended, and 57 retired. Two players tested positive for a second time, but both retired before serving the six-game suspensions that would have been imposed upon them.
The league and union have agreed to several changes to the policy this year, including lowering the threshold for what constitutes a positive test for testosterone and increasing the frequency with which players can be tested in the offseason.
Gary Wadler, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, told the committee that athletes are using labs to monitor their testosterone levels, and are managing to use testosterone without being detected by keeping their levels just below what constitutes a positive test. "That's a limitation of science," said Wadler, who also testified in the baseball hearing.
None of the Panthers players named in the "60 Minutes Wednesday" report tested positive under the NFL's steroid policy despite reportedly filling testosterone-cream prescriptions repeatedly. Tagliabue and other NFL officials acknowledged to the committee that the testosterone issue is problematic, and Tagliabue said after the hearing: "We've known testosterone could be calibrated ever since we've known about testosterone."
Tagliabue promised Davis to send the committee the league's findings regarding the Panthers case once its investigation is completed.
Wadler, a member of WADA, told the committee that the league should perform blood-testing of players for human growth hormone, which is not tested for by the NFL despite being banned. Wadler called the blood test for human growth hormone reliable, but Tagliabue said the league is not convinced of that after its consultations with experts. Tagliabue said the league will institute testing for human growth hormone when it's convinced that a reliable test exists, perhaps later this year.
Tagliabue disagreed with suggestions by committee members that the league should suspend players two years for a first positive steroid test and ban them for a second positive test, saying such penalties would be unfair. The commissioner also rejected suggestions that the increase in the number of 300-pound-plus players in the league indicate an upswing in steroid use, saying that such players generally have a high proportion of body fat.
"We don't believe they're getting there because of steroids. . . . They tend to be the antithesis of the lean, sculpted athlete," Tagliabue said.