Steroids and sports

Posted: Apr 06, 2004 12:00 AM

 The 2004 Major League Baseball season starts this week with the knowledge that a bare minimum of 5 percent of players were caught last season using performance-enhancing drugs. The overall issue of banning steroid use was elevated when President George W. Bush made it a part of his State of the Union address to Congress earlier this year. Congressional hearings followed. In March, InsiderAdvantage asked voters how they felt about possible congressional action.
Poll respondents were asked, "Do you support or oppose congressional action to curb the use of steroids by professional athletes?"

 The responses:
 Support     54 percent
 Oppose     33 percent
 Don't know/ No opinion   13 percent

 The poll was conducted March 18-19 among 500 Americans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 There was majority support for legislation among those who identified themselves as Republicans, Democrats and Independents. But the lack of overwhelming support for new laws suggests that although they might be welcomed if passed, steroids-in-sports regulations likely won't be an issue that candidates can use to gain a significant advantage in races for either Congress or the White House.

 Far more significant may be the public policy aspects of any steroid laws, or even the mere consideration of them. And that brings us back to baseball.

 While other major American sports have stricter rules against and punishments for drug use, including minor league baseball, Major League Baseball still tiptoes around the issue. Many argue that the stumbling block is the most powerful players union in the history of professional sports. Barring voluntary action by the union -- or congressional action -- no changes can be made to the current regulations on steroids and similar drugs until the players-owners basic agreement expires in 2006.

 Normally, the public and media pressure would be loud over the issue until after the season gets past its opening days and the news cycle passes on to other interests. But over the next two or three years, the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds will be chasing Hank Aaron's all-time career home run record. Every time he steps up to home plate, two questions -- one of them perhaps unfair to Bonds -- will be unavoidable: 1)Will he hit another home run, and 2)Is he on steroids?

 This will keep the issue front and center in the sports world, which could force the players union to agree to significant suspensions for substance abuse. The union probably will demand other, unrelated concessions in return, but that's another matter.

 The alternative to inaction by Major League Baseball is that Bonds' assault on the record book will become an assault on the game's legitimacy. And even if rules are passed, don't bet on Bonds' name ever being drawn out of the hat for a "random" test. So questions will persist.

 Of course the president and Congress are aiming beyond just Major League Baseball. They potentially will be looking at all athletics -- professional and amateur, including college sports. And there are some in Congress, even from the Republican side of the aisle, who doubt that legislation would ever be effective anyway. Legendary former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, now a Republican member of the House of Representatives, has said in essence that there will always be skirting of the rules by coaches and athletes in sports, just as in every other endeavor of life.

 Certainly Osborne brings a level of expertise to the debate that few in Congress can equal. His pessimism aside, however, the lack of uniformity in dealing with these "performance-enhancing drugs" almost surely will force additional reforms. If that used to be in doubt, it is less so now that the president has made steroids a major political issue. The main questions are whether the reforms will be voluntary by the various leagues, associations and athletic conferences, or whether Congress will force their hand.

 Judging from the deluge of articles and stories on steroids that have been coinciding with the start of the baseball season, it may well be institutional action by Major League Baseball and its powerful players union that prompts Congress to take swift and strong pre-election action on steroid use in all sports.

 Based on the results of our poll, there is just enough support for any such move as to compel both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to act. But there is also enough opposition, or just plain indifference, to make the issue of steroid laws a matter of public policy, not political advantage.