The heads of major professional sports leagues in the United States and their players' union representatives were on Capitol Hill Wednesday as part of a continuing debate over steroid use in sports.  As VOA's David Byrd reports, proposed legislation would toughen standards and penalties for drug use by pro athletes.

The sports commissioners and player representatives appeared Wednesday before the U.S House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, said that stiffer penalties should be implemented to set an example for younger athletes who might consider using steroids. 

"I, along with many of my colleagues, believe the best solution includes comprehensive and uniform drug testing rules, procedures, and penalties for all professional sports.  This should include a harmonization of drug testing if we are committed to building a unified front from the professional sports leagues to deal with this complex issue going forward today," said Mr. Stearns.

Mr. Stearns has introduced legislation (the Drug Free Sports Act), which would have the U.S. Commerce Secretary oversee drug-testing rules for sports.  The legislation calls for a mandatory two-year penalty for a first offense and a lifetime ban for the second positive test.  Leagues that did not comply with the proposed rules could be fined at least $5 million. 

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told the subcommittee that he wants to see stiffer penalties, including what was called the "three strikes and you're out" program.

"My top priority is to eradicate the use of performance-enhancing substances in professional baseball.  In pursuit of that goal, I will continue to pursue a very aggressive, collectively bargained policy with the Major League Players' Association," said Mr. Selig.

Under Mr. Selig's proposed program, players would be banned for 50 games for a first positive result, 100 games for a second positive test and for life after three positive tests.

This season, a first offense earns a 10-day suspension, a second positive test gets a 30-day suspension, with penalties increasing to one year for a fourth positive test.  For a fifth positive, the penalty is at the commissioner's discretion.

Baseball Players' Union head Donald Fehr said that players feel that proposed legislation could violate their Constitutional rights, including the right to privacy and to protection against unlawful search and seizure.

"We do feel that there are potentially constitutional issues in the legislation as drafted, particularly Fourth Amendment issues,? he explained.  ?The question rises as to whether or not searches ought to be required by a Federal Law, the premise of which is that there will not be and need not be individualized probable cause.  We think that you ought to be very careful in such areas."

Former U.S. Anti-Doping Agency head and 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter told the hearing that doping in any form sends the wrong message to younger athletes.

"When athletes enhance their performance by doping, it is cheating of the worst kind.  When an athlete is successful through doping, it sends a clear message to all athletes [that] the new price of achieving your dreams is compromising your integrity and risking your health," he added.

The subcommittee also heard from representatives of Major League Soccer and the National ice Hockey League.  National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Players' Union head Gene Upshaw are scheduled to testify on Thursday. 

The hearing is the latest in a series of Congressional hearings on doping in professional sports.  U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona has also proposed tougher sanctions for steroid use and could also introduce legislation to govern professional sports.