A Tale of Two Hearings

Michael Cox

Apparently unlike most sportswriters, I actually listened to the House Governmental Reform Committee hearings on steroids in Major League Baseball yesterday. I even typed up some notes for my own reference as the day went on, although I really had no intention of publicizing this un-issue further…until I got a load of just how crappy the coverage was elsewhere. (By the way, who is this guy and who gave him a typewriter?)

Basically, every sports site in existence led with a giant close-up photo of Mark McGwire’s puss (like I want that filling up my entire screen) and headlines based on the fact that he didn’t “come out” under oath. Then, each colmnist took turns telling us how bad it was that McGwire didn’t either break down and admit shooting testosterone cocktails (“I told ya so!”) or emphatically deny same (“How could he lie under oath like that??”).

Well, there were approximately ten and a half hours of testimony not dealing with whether McGwire was a big fat juicer, and since most of them missed it, I thought I’d share some of the highlights with you now.

Unfortunately I missed the first session, which was intended to set the stage for the hearings by bringing in teary families whose sons died of steroid abuse. I did get to see a replay of their opening statements during a break in the proceedings, though. Both young men committed suicide, but the families place the blame on steroids and Major League Baseball.

The Garibaldi family presented heartbreaking testimony regarding their (adult) son, who was told at USC that he needed to “get bigger” to get drafted, and was allegedly given steroids by the school team’s trainer. At no time did they blame the NCAA’s lack of steroid testing.

The thought professed by the parents, and by the doctors who testified later, is that all the kids are on the juice. This is similar to the closely held belief that all the kids are having sex, when the reality is that studies show the parents are more likely to have had sex when they were teens.

Money is another issue not addressed in these hearings: our culture places massive weight on “the lifestyles of the rich and famous.” Kids may not idolize Jason Giambi as much as they idolize Benjamin Franklin. Bring in Paris Hilton, P. Diddy and Donald Trump and browbeat them for a while.

Sen. Jim Bunning pronounced “andro” as “android” and claimed “steroids weren’t around” when he played, which isn’t what noted user Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has told us, nor what the Congresspersons would have us believe later in the proceedings. Bunning then went on to disparage “smaller new ballparks” for no specific reason.

The players arrive and the flashbulbs start popping. Sosa and Palmeiro both vehemently denied using steroids — Palmiero stating it with a vicious stab of his finger. McGwire did not explicitly deny steroid use, instead denying that Canseco’s book was truthful, which covers a lot of ground. Canseco says he hasn’t seen the new steroid policy, but he’s heard it’s a “complete joke.” Any bets that the “haven’t seen” part gets edited out on the wire service coverage?

Schilling: “The issue was grossly overstated by many people, including myself,” and estimates that even locker-room gossip pegs the percentage of players on “roids” to approximately the percentage found in testing (to refresh your memory, that was approximately 7 percent in 2003, and 1.7 percent in 2004).

Rep. Dan Burton: “I think it’s clear that the whole athletic world needs to know that these dangerous drugs should be…outlawed.” He seemed to realize the stupidity of what he was saying just before the end of the sentence there.

Question I Once Saw Asked On A Blog award goes to Rep. Paul Kanjorski: “If you could take a pill that will make you 10 times smarter, but would take 5-10 years off your life, how many people do you think would try to win a Nobel Prize?” Bonus stupid-question points: he asked that question to Jose Canseco.

Rep. Bernie Sanders, on the enormous media presence once the players showed up: “For those people who think this is all we do…it would be nice if there was this kind of interest in childhood poverty.” Sorry, Bernie…that is, unless you can get Paris Hilton to those hearings.

Rep. Darrell Issa comes out swinging like a budget lawyer: “You would all agree that using a dull ball is cheating, right?…So you would agree that using illegal steroids is cheating, right?…So shouldn’t it stand that Congress should have an interest in ensuring that there is no cheating?” Congratulations, Rep. Issa — you just made a case for federal laws against scuffed baseballs.

Canseco is getting bolder as the hearing goes on, eventually answering totally unrelated questions with his bold statement that nothing will happen without Congress stepping in. It’s not easy to swagger sitting down, but he’s doing it.

McGwire got in the zinger of the day: “What anybody can do to improve [testing], so that there are no more meetings like this, I’m all for it.”

Rep. Charles Dent: “Why do you think MLB has been much more aggressive when Pete Rose bet on baseball than it has been in this issue?” Well, you might ask your 1919 Congressional counterparts why that is, and how much damage gambling did to baseball then, compared to, say, how much damage has really been caused by this issue. Maybe Sen. Byrd remembers.

Rep. Jose Serrano showed himself to be the biggest baseball fan on the committee (“when someone says ‘this autograph is for my kid,’ don’t believe it — it’s for me”), and also probably the smartest: “You are all here today because of circumstances.” (He’s also not actually on the committee. Shame.)

Rep. Henry Waxman is clearly upset that Schilling no longer believes everyone’s on drugs, as he once stated several years ago. Schilling was blunt in that he was “uninformed and unaware” back then. Unfortunately Waxman did not probe further as to the definitions of the words “informed” and “aware.”

It’s clear that these representatives are hung up on “Olympic testing” and a notion of “zero tolerance” that basically chops off your head after one positive test. As predicted, they seem to miss the fact that a two-year suspension from an event that takes place every four years isn’t really that bad. And anyone thinking the Olympics doesn’t have a drug “problem” of its own hasn’t been paying attention. And the IOC only just imposed a stricter code prior to the Athens games, making anyone telling you how “effective” it is look just a tad foolish.

The players then exit, as do most of the media. They generally represented quite well (although the video link to Frank Thomas disappeared entirely after his opening statement), primarily Schilling and Palmeiro. McGwire did lose some sheen, but his subsequent evisceration by sportswriters is based on their own priorities, and not by how important his testimony might have been.

So far, the major theme of the hearings is “Major League Baseball players are smarter than most congresspeople.”

Now management files in. This is where the rubber hits the road.

The Putting-Words-In-People’s-Mouths Award: Rep. Henry Waxman tells Selig that the players told him again and again that they want a tougher testing program. In fact, players were asked again and again whether they would support a tougher program, to which they almost unanimously responded, “Uh…yeah.”

MLB CEO Rob Manfred has a way of angering people with what should be the most benign of statements. Congratulations, Rob: you’ve just turned this Congressional committee into a lynch mob. Lesson of the day: when you’re in the government’s house, don’t try and be more smug than they are.

Rep. Issa quoted Peter Uberroth from the mid-80s regarding a drug program unrelated to steroids (remember “Just Say No”?) and implied that MLB has been ignoring a “steroid alert” for the last 20 years. Then he flatly stated that the House might consider mandating drug testing for all unions. The AFL-CIO ought to love that.

This hearing has proved one of my own assumptions about Congress: they operate on philosophies, not facts. For example, Rep. Paul Kanjorski put forward that MLB should help prosecute any players who test positive. He suggests that “that’s what happens in the real world,” which does little except show an ignorance of the real world.

That baseball’s current testing program is actually finding fewer positives as it has become stronger is being willfully ignored. And when MLB’s testing program continues to work, Congress will claim it was their doing.

Interesting Logical Leap Award: Rep: Bernie Sanders: “If you say you’ve made tremendous progress, there must have been a tremendous problem.” “If the LA Times says something, are they wrong?” This guy got elected?? “When people commit the same crime, they get the same punishment.” I can’t believe that came out of a member of Congress.

Another idea beaten into the ground is the new MLB policy’s clause allowing the Commissioner to assign a fine instead of a suspension. It’s been called a “loophole” and an “escape clause.” Does Congress get its opinions from watching Law and Order? And everybody seemed to miss the line in the policy that says “all suspensions are without pay.” Only the $10,000 minimum fine was mentioned by anyone, and is what was used the approximately 12 times that various congresspeople attempted to show us how little punishment there is in “layman’s terms.” Clue: you guys aren’t Chris Rock.

I can’t believe that Bud Selig is the voice of reason here. He’s right: the program seems to be working, and it should be given time to work further. (A strong point no one made: the so-called “Olympic zero-tolerance program” finds a rate of 1-2 percent of athletes still testing positive for banned substances, and many more suspected by their peers.)

Bonds was throughout these hearings assumed to be on steroids, and at one point Waxman implied that players should be suspended when people think they’re on steroids.

Unfrozen Caveman Congressman Award: Rep. Paul Gutknecht: “I’ve heard ‘this is a collective bargaining issue,’ ‘this is a legal issue,’ (imagine him adding, “and blah-dy blah-dy blah,” while moving his hand like a mouth), …what this is, is a moral issue…and you owe it to people to get this done.”

This hearing really shows just how out-of-touch our legislators are. I’ve heard it implied that MLB should be hiring undercover investigators to ferret out abusers, that positive tests should be forwarded to the government for prosecution, and repeated demands that substances be banned which they themselves had not made illegal. To Rep. Patrick McHenry, anything less than lifetime expulsion is not a “zero tolerance” policy, and is unacceptable.

MLBPA head Don Fehr was probably the most sheepish management panel member today, but made the greatest point when he said he would consult with his constituents “away from the television cameras.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger repeated for the 2,096th time today, “why is there no action on this?” TWELVE POSITIVES. Considering the committee seemed to believe every word of “Juiced,” that’s major action. Ruppersberger later claimed that further action is needed because “perception becomes reality.”

Waxman finished up by hammering home his pet philosophy: that any tainted record be thrown out. He got no sale with the players, and no sale with management. And again with the universal sports drug policy for all levels. Let’s all be forced by the government to pee into cups (and Waxman is a Democrat, for cryin’ out loud), because only the guilty ones will have a problem with it, right?

This was a circus. The overarching thing I learned here is that our elected representatives have an inability to learn, or to find nuance. A series of half-baked ideas were hammered repeatedly, in the end helping no one. I’m glad no one from Washington was on the committee, or I’d have had to volunteer for the campaign of their next opponent. I say, let Congress act. Let a player fight his false positive all the way to the Supreme Court. Let it be thrown out as unconstitutional. It’ll be a waste, but maybe it’ll be a lesson for everyone.

Rep. Virginia Foxx summed it up best, if for the wrong reason: I had a hard time sitting here today and hearing the things I’m hearing.” Me too.

What’s next for the House Governmental Reform Committee, you ask? Looks like it’s euthanasia – they’ve just subpoenaed a brain-dead woman who’s on life support. I’m not joking.

about the author

Michael Cox is considering a run for Congress himself. Explain that there’s no You’re All Idiots Party to nominate him when you e-mail him from our Contact Us page.

Published March 18, 2005

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