MLB Toughens Penalties for Steroid Use

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Major League Baseball announces a new agreement between players and owners to toughen penalties for steroid use. The new policy calls for a 50-game suspension for the first offense and a lifetime ban after the third offense.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Major-league baseball and its players union have agreed on a strict new drug policy. The plan was announced today; it increases penalties for steroid use. Baseball is responding to pressure from Congress. Lawmakers were reportedly close to passing legislation with even tougher sanctions. The new policy still must be ratified by owners and players. NPR's Tom Goldman is following the story; he's with us now.

Tom, what's in this new agreement?

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

Michele, the most talked about provision will be the penalties for failing a steroid test. For the first positive test, a player will get a 50-game suspension; that's up from a 10-day suspension; second positive test, a 100-game suspension, up from 30 days. And a third positive test will draw a lifetime ban, and that's up from 60 days. A player banned for life has the right to apply for reinstatement after two years of suspension.

NORRIS: Now I understand there were other concerns about drug testing addressed in the new policy. Could you walk us through those?

GOLDMAN: Sure, two concerns in particular that were repeated as recently--last week in public. That's when the House Government Reform Committee wrapped up its investigation into whether Rafael Palmeiro of the Baltimore Orioles lied when he told Congress that he never used steroids back in March. The committee issued a report, and in that report the issue of amphetamines came up, and some have said that amphetamines are a much greater problem in baseball than steroids. Matter of fact, a former trainer for the Texas Rangers who worked for Texas up until 2002 said in the report that before one game, he asked a player to look out at the nine players on the field and tell him how many were on amphetamines, and the player said, `Eight.' So amphetamine use has been a problem. And this new agreement will, for the first time, test for amphetamines and impose penalties.

NORRIS: And the congressional report on Palmeiro also raises questions about the monitoring of drug tests, does it not?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's right. Palmeiro and another player who were tested this season talked about being informed they would be tested and then being left alone from that point until they provided a urine sample several hours later. Now that's a no-no in drug testing. Once you've alerted a player, you need to stay with him because there's concern that there'll be cheating or the player can take some masking agent. And today's agreement also deal with that issue, calls for an independent person not tied to baseball or the union to oversee the scheduling of tests and the supervision of the sample collection process.

NORRIS: Well, I imagine people in and out of major-league baseball have a lot to say about this new agreement. What are you hearing?

GOLDMAN: They do. First, there's Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner. For him this is a victory. The steroid penalties, the testing for amphetamines, these are exactly what he called for in April of this year. So he's happy and he said in a written statement, `This is an important step to reaching our goal of ridding our sport of performance-enhancing substances, and it should restore the integrity of and public confidence in our great game.'

Donald Fehr, the head of the players union, who is the one guy who seemed dragging his feet on this issue, said this agreement reaffirms major-league players are committed to the elimination of performance-enhancing substances and that the system of collective bargaining is responsive and effective in dealing with issues of this type.

And then there was Senator Jim Bunning, whose legislation really put the pressure on these guys to figure it out themselves. And Bunning basically today declared victory. He said even though the agreement didn't include everything he wanted, he's happy with the results.

NORRIS: Now those folks were mainly happy about this. What about naysayers?

GOLDMAN: Well, yeah, and there always will be naysayers, and they'll point to the actual wording of this agreement itself. While the frequency of testing will increase, baseball still will telegraph results. It calls for preseason tests in conjunction with spring training physicals. Now you tell an athlete when they're going to be tested, unless they're really dumb, they're going to figure out if they're taking drugs, they need to stop near the time when they'll be tested.

NORRIS: Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's Tom Goldman.

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