|ESPN.com: One year later: zero progress|
Curt Schilling and Frank Thomas were the "good guys" at the steroids hearings -- to the extent there were any good guys taking the field for the players on that black day for baseball one year ago, March 17, 2005. Even Schilling backpedaled from his prior comments and soft sold the extent of steroids in Major League Baseball. But at least Schilling and Thomas didn't dissemble, like Mark McGwire, or turn out to be abusers, like Rafael Palmeiro. They enlisted in the Zero Tolerance task force announced that day by Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the hearings for the House Committee on Government Reform.
But it turns out Schilling and Thomas didn't have any better fortune fighting steroids last year than they did pitching and hitting, respectively, during their injury-riddled 2005 seasons. On the one-year anniversary of its birth, the task force, subsequently downgraded to a Zero Tolerance roundtable, boasts approximately zero progress. It met once in May (an organizational conference call), once in July and once in November.
AP Photo/Ron SchwaneThumbs up to progress? That's debatable. But at least Curt Schilling is trying.
Don't blame Schilling and Thomas, though. Rep. Davis' staff is responsible for the group, whose membership is made up primarily of drug experts and league and union officials. The players comprised a distinct minority, and they have actually participated -- and not just Schilling (who called into two of the three meetings) and Thomas (who called into one). Palmeiro was on the line for the July meeting, too, and spoke "rather convincingly," according to one meeting participant.
This was just three weeks before he was suspended 10 games for testing positive for steroids.
Schilling even pitched an intriguing idea during the November meeting.
"He felt that if schools had the ability to test [for steroids], it would be a huge deterrent," recalls Fernando Montes, executive director of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which runs steroids education programs. "But how could they pay for it? Curt suggested that all the major leagues take a half-cent or a penny from each ticket sold and put into a fund that would pay for testing. That would be a huge windfall."
The problem: no staff to further develop such ideas, no meetings scheduled since November, and hence no follow-through. The last time Montes checked in with the congressional committee, he was told it was busy with the Hurricane Katrina investigation.
"This wasn't the flavor of the month anymore," says Montes.
Insists Rep. Davis: Zero Tolerance isn't kaput.
"We're continuing to talk to stakeholders [in the steroids issue], and we're trying to assess our agenda for this next year," says the Virginia Republican. But, he adds, lawmakers are really best equipped just to "highlight the problem and raise public awareness."
STEROIDS: ONE YEAR AFTER
Here's more on the wake, one year later, left by the House Committee on Government Reform's hearings on steroids in baseball: • Rep. Tom Davis: Questions and answers • One Year Later: Jose Canseco • One Year Later: Rafael Palmeiro • One Year Later: Sammy Sosa • One Year Later: Mark McGwire • SportsNation: Who will survive? • Chat wrap: Jerry Crasnick
Indeed, whether the congressmen or athletes ever follow through on their promises, the hearings themselves had some of the trappings of a "Magic Johnson moment." Anti-drug advocates saw the potential to change awareness and attitudes about steroids similar to the way the basketball star's 1992 HIV-positive announcement did for AIDS.
"I think the appearances of the five players [Schilling, Thomas, Palmeiro, McGwire and Sammy Sosa, along with Jose Canseco], together with the testimony of the families, had enormous impact," says Dr. Gary Wadler, a New York University medical school professor and anti-doping advocate, who also testified before the House Committee on Government Reform. "It put things in human terms and it was important to see the contrast of the two groups."
At the least, the hearings prodded commissioner Bud Selig to push for a tougher steroids policy, which was in place for much of last season and will be used again this year. But Dr. Wadler believes there is more work to be done on baseball's new policy. Among other things, he charges, the agreement between MLB and the players union doesn't provide for blood tests, which are required to detect the use of human growth hormone, and requires little offseason testing.
"There's no question things are improved as a result of the hearings, but there's also no question we're not where we need to be," he says.
To which Greg Bouris, a spokesman for the players union, says, "The program in place now is the strongest among all professional sports."
AP Photo/Ben MargotExcept for one phone call, Frank Thomas has been a Nowhere Man on the task force.
Robert Kanaby, who heads the National Federation of High School Associations and also testified at the hearings, says the problem is that too many organizations are content to run anti-drug "public service announcements" when the crying need is for effective and widespread school education programs "It was a 180-degree turn for baseball," says Kanaby of the hearings. "But to be honest with you, there's much, much more work to be done."
Kanaby's federation went ahead and developed its own multimedia anti-steroids campaign last year, called "Make the Right Choice," and made it available to its 16,000 member schools. It's a start.
"There was such a massive media impact [at the hearings]," says Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who testified at the hearings. "A lot of parents who didn't know the signs of steroid use got a lot of information."
The hearings' impact might be better measured after that federal agency's next annual survey of steroids use among high school students. The national rate of use among 12th graders actually declined in 2005 from 2.6 percent of that population to 1.5 percent, according to the federal agency; but that survey was taken before the hearings.
Credit Major League Baseball for some follow-through on the steroids education front as well as its tougher steroids regulation. It donated $1 million last August to the Taylor Hooton Foundation. That provided a big boost for the fledgling organization, founded by the parents of a Texas schoolboy pitcher who committed suicide and dedicated to creating anti-steroids programs for young athletes. Teaming up with strength and conditioning coaches for MLB clubs, the foundation is starting a series of educational forums called "Hoot's Chalk Talks" at major-league ballparks this year.
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com