NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw said yesterday that the union is prepared to agree to measures to toughen the league's steroid policy in an effort "to eliminate the cheaters" from the sport.
Officials from both the players' union and the league said the two sides are discussing several possible changes to their steroid-testing program. Those deliberations come with the NFL's steroid policy under renewed scrutiny following a report that three Carolina Panthers players filled steroid prescriptions by a South Carolina doctor within two weeks of playing in the Super Bowl in February 2004. A congressional committee has asked the NFL to submit information this week on its steroid-testing program.
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"We think we have a good policy," Upshaw said by telephone. "But as we've already said up on [Capitol] Hill, we know it's not perfect. If we have to make changes, we are willing to do that. Everybody knows that people are always trying to get ahead of the game, and we're going to do everything we can to eliminate the cheaters."
Upshaw's comments were his first public remarks since last week's report by "60 Minutes Wednesday" on the Panthers players. Upshaw said he believes that the NFL already tests players frequently enough and imposes sufficient penalties upon players who test positive. He refused to reveal specifics of the changes to the steroid policy under consideration, but said, "There are things we can do to make it stronger, and we're willing to look at anything that will help us do that."
The league previously acknowledged that it would seek the union's approval for one change in the steroid program, a lowering of the threshold for what constitutes a positive test for testosterone to keep the NFL's standards in line with those of the International Olympic Committee. But sources familiar with the discussions between the league and the union said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because deliberations are at a sensitive stage, that Upshaw and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue want to implement changes more extensive than lowering the testosterone threshold.
League spokesman Greg Aiello said by telephone, "We are having our annual conversations with the union about possible modifications to the drug programs." Asked whether the changes could go beyond a lowering of the testosterone threshold, Aiello said, "Possibly." He declined further comment.
Under the NFL's steroid-testing program, seven players from each team are chosen randomly for testing each week during the regular season. All players are tested during training camp, and players are subject to random tests during the offseason. A player is subject to a four-game suspension without pay for a first positive steroid test.
Aiello stressed that the league and union conduct an annual review of drug-testing policies. Upshaw and Harold Henderson, the league's chief labor executive, participated in those meetings this week in Arizona, then traveled to Pittsburgh for a labor-negotiating session Tuesday with Tagliabue and several team owners.
Two owners who participated in that meeting, the Steelers' Dan Rooney and the Denver Broncos' Pat Bowlen, said yesterday that steroids issues were not discussed in their presence.
"Personally, I think we have a very effective plan to detect steroids," Bowlen said. "We have had to make some adjustments. . . . Things will slip through the cracks every once in a while [but] I think that we as a league do a very good job in that area."
Shapiro contributed to this report from Augusta, Ga.