WASHINGTON — Arguing that sports leagues' drug programs could be "gutted" if not protected from individual states' laws, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked Congress on Tuesday to intervene with legislation and found at least one powerful ally.
Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during a hearing Tuesday that recent court decisions essentially blocking doping-related suspensions of two Minnesota Vikings players "could render the NFL and Major League Baseball drug testing programs unenforceable, loophole-ridden, and unacceptably weak and ineffective."
Yet Goodell also heard this, less-supportive, message from another lawmaker: Be careful what you wish for.
"You don't want to have 435 members of Congress writing a law that would have in any way some immediate conduct and effect on your players," Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., told Goodell at the end of the subcommittee session he chaired Tuesday.
Waving his hands as if to ward off the effort, Rush said, "You don't want us to get involved in this. You can't tell what members of Congress will ultimately do once you open up this Pandora's Box."
Rush urged the league and its players union to try to work out a solution.
Goodell wants to change federal law to protect sports leagues' collectively bargained steroid policies from state law challenges; DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, prefers to resolve the issue during labor talks.
The House subcommittee also heard from executives from Major League Baseball — supporting the NFL's contention that legislation could help — and the baseball's players union, backing its football counterpart in saying legislation is unnecessary.
Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said his organization supports legislation to protect professional sports leagues' anti-doping programs "against interference from inconsistent state laws."
Waxman, who has held high-profile hearings on steroids in sports, said that if the court rulings are not reversed, "then we need to find out if the collective bargaining process can solve these problems or whether congressional action is needed.
"One thing is clear: We should not allow the drug policies that the NFL, Major League Baseball, and other sports leagues have put in place to be rendered null and void. That is an invitation to steroid abuse in professional sports. And it will inevitably lead to more steroid use on high school football fields and baseball diamonds."
Goodell and Smith also took some swipes at each other Tuesday, six days after appearing before another House committee looking at the NFL's policies regarding concussions — and one day before the two men are to meet in New York for the latest round of labor negotiations.
Tuesday's session was hardly a meaty hearing. At times, no more than three lawmakers were present; Waxman was among those who didn't stick around to question the panel of witnesses.
The NFL has attempted to suspend the two Vikings, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, for violating its anti-doping policy last season.
Goodell told reporters after the hearing he was reluctant to ask for Congress' help.
"The issue here is that if the state court case allows any athlete from Minnesota to be subject to a different standard, all of professional sports' drug programs will be gutted," he said.
The Vikings players tested positive in 2008 for the diuretic bumetanide, which is banned by the NFL because it can mask the presence of steroids. The players acknowledged taking the over-the-counter weight loss supplement StarCaps, which did not state on the label that it contained bumetanide. Neither player is accused of taking steroids.
Smith, of the NFLPA, told Congress the administrator of the league's steroids policy knew that StarCaps contained bumetanide but did not inform the players.
"This should not be a 'gotcha' game," Smith said.
Goodell said after the hearing: "We do not do product-by-product warnings. There are thousands of products out there."
Williams and Williams — who are not related — sued the NFL in state court, arguing the league's testing violated Minnesota laws. The case was moved to federal court, and the NFL players union filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of the Williamses and New Orleans Saints players also suspended.
In May, a federal judge dismissed the union's lawsuit and several claims in the Williamses' case but sent two claims involving Minnesota workplace laws back to state court. A judge there issued an injunction prohibiting the NFL from suspending the players and has scheduled the trial for March. Those decisions were upheld by a federal appeals court panel.
The court ruling led the NFL to allow New Orleans defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith, who had also been issued four-game suspensions, to continue playing. Both players also tested positive for bumetanide.
Goodell told Congress he is disappointed the union "refused to support us on the issue" and said the lawsuit by the Vikings players "expressly violated" the collective bargaining agreement.
Smith said the way to fix the problem is through collective bargaining, but Goodell said that won't work.
"This has gotten beyond the control of the two parties," Goodell said.