Hearing: Federal intervention in steroid issue is imminent

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Four major sports league commissioners and four union chiefs are not happy about it, but they might soon face a bipartisan push in the U.S. Congress to take control of steroid testing and punishment away from professional sports and turn it over to an independent agency.

In a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill, both the Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce Trade and Consumer Protection, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and an influential Republican, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., voiced their support for federal intervention into the steroid issue.

"For 16 years, they did nothing about it in professional sports, and now they are asking us to take their word for it that they are taking a high standard like the Olympics," Stearns said. "We did our hearings [in 2005], and they finally did something. It is a dubious achievement."

Stearns was instrumental in an earlier attempt to impose standardized testing and punishment on professional sports, introducing a bill in 2005 after those first hearings that made it to the floor of the House before it died.

"We need to restart and [to] finish the legislative process," he said. "We need a positive plan."

Outside the hearing room, Rush echoed Stearns.

"There is a role for legislation," Rush said. "There are things that they are not doing in the sports leagues, and we can help them begin to do them."

The Subcommittee heard testimony Wednesday from MLB commissioner Bud Selig, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA commissioner David Stern and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, as well as the MLB Players Association's Don Fehr, the NFLPA's Gene Upshaw, the NBPA's Billy Hunter and the NHLPA's Paul Kelly. Rush and Stearns received zero support from any of them in their push for legislation.

However, the congressional panel found some help from Jim Scherr, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Travis T. Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the independent agency that investigates and prosecutes drug violations in Olympic sports. USADA is funded by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the federal government.

Noting that violations of performance-enhancing drug policies result in far stiffer penalties in the Olympic sports -- two years for a first violation, a lifetime ban for a second -- Tygart said, "I don't see why an independent agency would not work better" for the four major professional sports.

Tygart suggested that the players probably would prefer independent testing.

"They want to show that they are playing clean," he observed.

He cited the use of USADA and Olympic standards for professional hockey and basketball players who participate in the Olympics.

"We have them for 12 months before the Olympic competition," Tygart said. "We test them 365 days, 24 hours per day; and we go all over to do the tests. They have never had a problem with it, and they are the stars of their leagues."

Rush organized the hearing and invited the top officials from North American sports organizations. It was clearly an attempt to regain the initiative in congressional investigations of steroids after the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., captured the spotlight with hearings involving Roger Clemens, Brian McNamee and baseball's Mitchell Report in recent weeks. Ironically, Waxman's committee chose Wednesday to formally ask the Department of Justice to open an investigation into whether Clemens lied under oath in its hearing earlier this month.

In his opening remarks, Rush reminded a standing-room-only crowd that his committee began the effort "to clean up sports." Other committee members from both parties echoed his sentiments.

The notion that independent agencies should be in charge of investigations is something of a flavor of the month, and highly fashionable, in the U.S. Congress. While Rush and Stearns work on a plan for an independent steroids agency, other House leaders are looking hard at an independent ethics agency to investigate their fellow members.

Like the steroid inquiry, the push for an independent ethics agency has grown from federal prosecutions. Two members of the House face serious federal charges. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., faces 16 counts of fraud and bribery after federal agents found $90,000 in cash in his freezer. And Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., faces 35 counts of fraud and money laundering.

It will be interesting to see which comes first -- an agency to investigate sports or an agency to investigate members of the House.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.