Congress Has No Business in Professional Sports

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, recently announced he'll be holding hearings on college football's Bowl Championship Series, proclaiming, "Too often college football ends in sniping and controversy, rather than winners and losers. The current system of determining who's No. 1 appears deeply flawed."

Barton's announcement comes on the heels of Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to stick his nose in the ongoing saga involving Terrell Owens of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Commenting on the team's decision to keep the All-Pro wide receiver inactive in retaliation for his poor behavior, Specter said, "It's a restraint of trade for them to do that, and the thought crosses my mind, it might be a violation of antitrust laws."

Specter then threatened to refer the Owens matter to a Senate subcommittee that deals with anti-trust issues before retracting his comments a day later.

I wish I could single Specter and Barton out for their buffoonish grandstanding, but this arrogant, delusional assumption that a concerned congressman can, ought to, and has the power to meddle in the sports world — not to mention just about every other area of our lives — isn't limited to Texas and Pennsylvania.

This Republican Congress has come a long way since it took over in 1994. The limited government principles that swept the GOP into power are — like a steroid-infused home run — going, going, and gone. With its high profile, its intense loyalties and its mass appeal, there's no better grandstanding opportunity for a politician than big-time sports.

Talk health care reform and eyes glaze over. Save baseball from steroids, and you look like a hero.

Such is why Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., once asserted in a letter to Major League Baseball that his committee not only had jurisdiction to meddle in the MLB's drug-testing policies, it had the power to conduct an investigation "at any time, on any matter."

It gets worse. Davis' committee, the Government Oversight Committee, is actually charged with reigning in government excess. Separation of powers be damned.

The list of meddlers goes on.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who's in lockstep with Davis on the steroids issue, wants Congress to regulate professional boxing, too — a sport McCain says (probably correctly) is corrupt. Perhaps inspiring Rep. Barton, a legislator in Texas recently introduced a bill barring the University of Texas from playing in the BCS championship — his way of "nudging" the NCAA toward a playoff system.

Rep. Davis, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and a host of others want a congressionally mandated drug testing system for all professional, Division I, and top-tier amateur sports. According to a June 27 article published in "Roll Call," Davis also recently threatened Major League Baseball with sanctions if the organization were to sell one of its franchises to George Soros, a political nemesis of Davis's. These are just a few examples.

Let's be clear, here. The Constitution gives Congress no authority — zero — to interfere in the goings-on of private entities like the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NCAA. If owners are colluding to keep an athlete from attaining his fair market value, it's a matter for the Justice Department, or for state attorneys general. If a sport is corrupt, it's a matter for the criminal justice system. If athletes are cheating, let the sport's internal mechanisms sort things out. If the sport fails, fans will stop patronizing a rigged game.

"Very important senator" has no role here. The Constitution is pretty clear on that.

Of course, a lack of constitutional authority has never stopped Congress before.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that there's some clear hypocrisy at play here, too. The same politicians railing against the failings of big-time sports have curiously difficult time keeping their own house in order. For example, John McCain — himself one of the "Keating Five" senators tainted by the savings and loan scandal — says the federal government needs to regulate professional boxing because the sport is hopelessly corrupt.

That may well be. But then, so is Congress. Two high-profile members of McCain's own party have been indicted in just the last two months. His Senate majority leader is under investigation for insider trading. And of course, there's the legal, ongoing "corruption" that takes place in Congress every day, such as when members procure wasteful pork projects from the federal treasury to win favor with constituents back home, or when lobbyists give sweetheart jobs to the family members of senators and congressmen. The notion of Congress "cleaning up" another institution is laughable.

Likewise, Rep. Davis and fellow baseball antagonists say steroids and amphetamines give athletes an "unfair advantage" over the competition. Never mind that after the 2000 census, Davis led efforts to gerrymander his own congressional district to ensure he'd never need to worry about re-election. Due to gerrymandering, Davis ran unopposed in 2002, as did one in five of his congressional colleagues.

Davis also recently sneaked a provision into federal legislation that prevented an apartment complex from going up in his district because, according to the Washington Post, he feared it would bring too many Democrats into the area. And as head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, Davis fought to similarly gerrymander Republican districts across the country, effectively giving many voters just one candidate to choose from.

As for McCain, he's responsible for putting limits on campaign spending that will make it even more difficult for challengers to knock off incumbents in the House and Senate.

Such efforts make it more difficult for voters to hold the GOP accountable when, for example, its party leaders prove to be corrupt. While opinion polls show the public's approval of Congress consistently hovers around 40 percent, 98 percent of incumbents won re-election in 2004. According to a Cato Institute study by Patrick Basham and Dennis Polhill, "90 percent of Americans live in congressional districts where the outcome is so certain that their votes are irrelevant."

So it's difficult to take politicians like Davis and McCain seriously when they talk about healthy competition and unfair advantages. If a slugger has indeed been using steroids, he may well have cheated opposing pitchers of a fair duel, or paying customers of a level baseball game. But politicians like Davis do all they can to cheat voters out of honest elections and electoral accountability. Which is worse?

None of this is to say that athletes who cheat shouldn't be penalized. Nor is it to say that boxing isn't corrupt, or that the BCS system isn't a dreadful way of picking a college football champion. But there are far preferable methods of dealing with these problems than entrusting them to the hypocritical, self-aggrandizing gestures of politicians.

Radley Balko maintains the The Agitator weblog.

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