WASHINGTON – Baltimore Orioles Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro told a congressional committee Thursday they have never used steroids, and that they could support tougher drug-testing policies to catch those who do.
The two were subpoenaed to testify, along with other baseball players and officials, at a daylong hearing on illegal use of the body-building drugs in professional sports and the dangerous message it can send to child athletes.
“I have never used steroids. Period. I do not know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never,” Palmeiro told the House Committee on Government Reform.
Palmeiro said the claim that he took steroids, which was included in a recent book by retired baseball star Jose Canseco, “is absolutely false.”
Sosa’s attorney read a statement on his behalf.
“Everything I have heard about steroids and human growth hormones is that they are very bad for you, even lethal,” he said in the statement. “I would never put anything dangerous like that in my body. Nor would I encourage other people to use illegal performance-enhancing drugs.”
The hearing included testimony from physicians about the dangers of steroids, and testimony about its allure from parents who blamed their sons’ suicides on the drug, which they took “to get bigger” for sports. In response to questions from the committee, the players conceded Thursday that professional baseball players are role models for children.
Anabolic steroids can help stimulate muscle growth and are prescribed for treatment in muscle disorders. But if abused, the drug has harmful side effects that can include increased chances of heart attacks, hormonal imbalances and in some cases, suicide.
But while performance-enhancing drugs like steroids are banned by sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, athletes have used them to enhance performance levels, strength and energy.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee chairman, said he called the hearing to discuss what types of policy changes might reduce the steroid use, not only in the pros but among college and high school athletes as well.
Committee members were particularly critical of loopholes in Major League Baseball’s drug-testing policy.
For example, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Baltimore, pointed out that a player who cannot produce enough urine for drug test can now leave, unchaperoned, for up to an hour, during which he could take measures to mask the true results.
Other loopholes included the fact that players are not in violation if they are caught using a drug that is not specifically named in baseball’s contract with its players, and all those drugs have to be agreed upon by both the players and management.
The committee focused on the fact that players who test positive have the option of taking a 10-day suspension or paying a fine of up to $10,000, after which their names may not be released. Only after a fifth violation would a player face a lifetime suspension.
While both Sosa and Palmeiro said that using steroids was a form of cheating, they were reluctant to say if records held by players found guilty of drug use should be erased. Palmeiro said he believed that decision should be left up to the commissioner.
Palmeiro also asked the committee to include him with players Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox on its newly formed Zero Tolerance Advisory Committee.
Many committee members said that if baseball cannot clean up steroids, Congress might.
Those members discussed a uniform system, which would apply to all sports, from youth leagues to the pros, such as the one now in place for Olympic athletes. There, a first-time offense results in a two-year suspension and a second results in a lifetime ban.
Both Palmeiro and Sosa said they would play under such a drug-testing program and both said it would be better if an independent agency administered drug tests.
“I’m in favor of eliminating the problem completely,” Palmeiro said.
Even as they talked about regulating baseball, many committee members were not shy about revealing their love for the sport and their admiration of the players. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, said his younger son wore Sosa’s jersey to bed, even before he came to the Orioles from the Chicago Cubs.
But Van Hollen questioned the league’s claim that less than 2 percent of drug tests came back positive in 2004, citing the poor testing standards in place.
“Tightening the testing policy is what gives some teeth” to efforts to eliminate steroid use, Van Hollen said.
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