|Wednesday, October 9
Updated: October 10, 12:57 PM ET
Osborne finds politics and sports do mix
By Tom Farrey
As Republicans go, Tom Osborne qualifies as a dependable conservative. He pledges allegiance to the pledging of allegiance in schools, praises across-the-board tax relief, and stands solidly with President Bush on Iraq. He even looks like he sprang from GOP central casting, with that stalwart chin and die-cast haircut.
In July, he got behind a House resolution urging Major League Baseball to test its players for steroids. Two weeks ago, he led a coalition of lawmakers in urging the NFL to crack down on sponsorships by hard-liquor companies. Next week, it's "unscrupulous agents" on the docket, as the House votes on legislation that would place everyone's favorite bogeymen under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission.
Amid this hectic schedule, Osborne found himself with a few free minutes on Wednesday morning.
So he threw a press conference.
And called for a government attack on certain sports supplements.
"Our young athletes have been taught the fallacy that performance-enhancing drugs and supplements are critical to their success in athletics," Osborne announced. "No longer is one person's natural physical strength, speed or agility enough to differentiate him from his competitors. But these substances have the same effects and dangers as steroids. And their side effects pose far greater risks for young people than they do for adults."
His latest foray into the grimier side of sports is arguably his most important. By introducing a bill that would reclassify steroid precursors like androstenedione as controlled substances, he and co-sponsor John E. Sweeney -- another Republican -- are going after an industry that has contributed to the super-sizing of the nation's athletes.
Football players long have been big and strong. But now they're freaks. And now those freaks are sprouting in high school. With the exception of the supplement companies, few would suggest this is a healthy development. Some even would argue it's been bad for the game, with the associated injuries that force popular athletes to the sidelines.
That's why Osborne, despite his conservative bent, wants the bureaucrats to step in.
"It would be inappropriate if we tried to legislate in areas such athletic eligibility or the academic requirements to play sports," Osborne told ESPN.com. "But when you're dealing with health issues, government agencies shouldn't allow the sales of something harmful."
Osborne acknowledges that "to some degree," he's running against the ethic of his party. But insists he's no Ted Kennedy in coaching shorts, noting that most of his sports-issue initiatives require little or no government funding.
As ESPN.com reported two years ago, almost nothing is being done to stem the flow of steroids from Mexico and other countries. The Drug Enforcement Administration wasn't given the money or staffing to figure out the black market and work with foreign drug officials. Dogs aren't taught to sniff for the drugs at borders. And prosecutors are so flooded with heroin and cocaine cases that steroid trafficking gets scant attention.
Worse-case scenario: Your local GNC store loses its ability to sell steroid precursors, further stimulating the black market for anabolic steroids because kids no longer have legal alternatives to building muscle. Although their properties are similar, real anabolic steroids are far more powerful than any sports supplement.
"Is there a chance we'll see more people turn to illegal steroids?" asked Frank Uryasz, who runs the NCAA's drug-testing program. "When you ban something, there's always that chance that it will lead people to take something more serious. But we know so little about the steroid precursors that it's a responsible move to pull these products off the shelves."
Osborne says he has no idea how much support he can round up in Congress for the bill, but that he's committed to following through on restricting access to steroid precursors.
"Right now, every bit of domestic spending is difficult to come by because of the war on terrorism," he said. "But down the road, once we work out of the financial crunch, that's an area where I'd like to get more funding."
Long-time observers of college football will find it ironic that Osborne is leading the charge against pumped-up athletes. After all, Osborne loved his linemen big and beefy when he was coach at Nebraska, and they didn't all get that way in the weight room. Players like Dean Steinkuhler, the 1983 Outland Award winner, admitted to using steroids, and whispers about juiced players regularly dogged the program.
To his credit, the suspicions led Osborne to start random, unannounced testing at Nebraska in 1984, several years before the conference and many other schools would follow suit. And further to his credit, Osborne took up the steroids issue as a congressman, knowing people would reflect back on his Nebraska problems.
Frank Shorter, chairman of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which runs the drug-testing for Olympic athletes in this country, recalls the day two months ago when he marched into Osborne's office. His request for support was not met with the usual political hedging.
"He said, 'You know, I think I can do something about this,' and now here we are," Shorter said as the news conference was about to get underway. "This happened about as quickly as things happen in this town."
The bill is being introduced late in the session, so no action is likely to be taken until Congress reconvenes and it can be reintroduced. But at least the issue is now on Washington's agenda, and it has Osborne's name on it -- no minor consideration. Freshman members are supposed to be seen and not heard, but his House colleagues, even Democrats, look to him to help them think through sports-related issues.
That measure of respect is reflected in how his peers address him.
"Most of them call me 'coach,' " he said, downplaying the meaning with typical Osborne understatement and humor. "That way they don't have to remember my name."
Or maybe it just seems like he's still coaching. The game's just moved to Capitol Hill.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.