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Tuesday, July 21, 2009
When should Congress get involved with pro sports, Part II?

Back in June, Mike reported on the letter from U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen urging NBA Commissioner and NBAPA Executive Director Billy Hunter to eliminate the league's age limit. I responded by wondering under what circumstances Congress should become involved with issues relating to governance and operations of sports and leagues. Yesterday, Mike reported that Cohen has sent another letter on the subject, this one to NBA President Joel Litvin.

So I am going to be repeat my question today: When is it acceptable or appropriate for Congress (or individual members of Congress) to become involved with issues relating to governance and operations of sports and leagues? Congress was roundly criticized (and I joined in) for the steroids hearings. And Orrin Hatch has been the target of jokes because of his call for hearings about the BCS, after Utah was kept out of the BCS. All such actions are widely met with cries of "worry about the American people, not about college football." On the other hand, the response to Cohen's letters has been positive, at least around here (unless it is only because Rep. Cohen cited Mike's article). And, as I wrote yesterday, the alleged parade of horribles from a bad ruling in American Needle could be undone by a Congress willing to step-in to protect fans and consumers.

So where is the line between Congress stepping into a matter of legitimate federal concern and "don't they have bigger things to worry about"? Is it when members of the public are genuinely being injured, as by the age limit (although the number is incredibly small) or by a Court decision that gave the leagues too much power, while such harm (beyond psychic disappointment) is missing as to the BCS? Is it a difference between internal league matters and those touching on people outside the league? Is it the difference between acting towards the undefined "integrity of the game" (e.g., steroids) as opposed to dealing with the broader business of sports (where sports are not much different than other entities regulated by federal law)? Of course, federal law does speak to things such as gambling, which is all about the integrity of the game.

So is there any metric to guide the actions of legislators?


Let me start by saying thank you for starting this thread.. It bugs me to no end when politicians grandstand by using a sports issue rather than a "more important national interest".

So, why do they do it? My cynical point of view is that many voters know more about sports and entertainment than they do political issues. More people will know what was said during the grilling of a baseball player then will know what was debated before a vote on commerce, health care, or energy.

When is it acceptable for congress to get involved? Well, Im not sure. Was it acceptable to hold the steroid sessions? Maybe. If they held the hearing because the league looked the other way when players were blatantly violating federal law (yup, roids are illegal if not prescribed to treat a condition), and the leagues actions or inacations had a negative impact on "the people", maybe its not such a bad thing for congress to look into it.

A hearing regarding whether a certain player cheated, is a waste of tax dollars. A hearing looking into how a private organization does its business, not beacause its illegal, but because its "unfair" to a team that was left out... is a waste of tax dollars...

Blogger Jimmy H -- 7/21/2009 6:13 PM  

I agree with the argument made by Senator Hatch in his recent op-ed in Sports Illustrated:

"All told, the BCS games generate
hundreds of millions of dollars
every year. If the government
were to ignore a similar business
arrangement of this magnitude
in any other industry, it
would be condemned for shirking
its responsibility. In essence,
those making the argument that
the BCS is too trivial a matter
to receive governmental attention
are saying that we should
hold colleges and universities
to lower standards of fairness
and ethical behavior than we
would a commercial entity. I
must respectfully disagree."

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/21/2009 6:15 PM  

Anon 6:15,

I Agree, the BCS games generate hundreds of millions every year... but what exactly does the fact that there is a lot of money invovled have to do with anything?

The ncaa and the BCS are both private organizations that use a mostly subjective system for determining who plays in the BCS championship game. A school is not forced to take part in the BCS, and a season will never pass without some teams alleging that they were actually "better" than this or that team. SO what exactly is congress supposed to investigate at their hearings? Should congress have the power to determine what criteria the BCS must use in order to determine the BCS Championship matchup?

Let me just say that I am no fan of the BCS, and I would prefer a playoff style championship. But should politicians have any say in it? Hell no! Again... Private organization, teams participate voluntarily, and it does not matter if there are 2 dollars or 2 trillion dollars invovled.

Blogger Jimmy H -- 7/21/2009 8:00 PM  

The BCS is fair game for the same reason that Ford or Microsoft or Enron are fair game--they are major businesses working in interstate commerce, thus coming within Congress's regulatory authority, and thus its investigative authority.

The line Jimmy draws between "fairness" and "illegality" as to the BCS is unworkable and somewhat circular. It was the unfairness of the BCS that suggests it might be doing something illegal. Or, more importantly, the unfairness may indicate that what it is doing *should be* illegal and the law should be changed.

What makes Hatch's interest in the BCS look funny is the fact that his interest is based solely on the unfairness falling on Utah; if it had been Boise State, I doubt Hatch would have cared. But that is always true of Congress--the local representative is the one who brings issues to national attention.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 7/21/2009 8:49 PM  


I understand why its "fair game", you can pretty much make anything fair game by using the commerce clause. My point wasn't really that it was outside congress's authority, simply that I don't think they should get involved in something just because they CAN. Because really, using the commerce clause, national security, or public health arguments, is there ANYTHING that congress does not have the authority to investigate?

Sorry for all the added emphasis by the way, but since you can't see my violent hand gestures when discussing government involvment in every aspect of humanity...well, you get the point...

I'm not convinced that my argument is circular and unworkable though. You claim that it was the unfairness on the part of the BCS that suggests that it may be doing something illegal. My question is: why is it unfair? Because not every team that claims to be the best gets a shot at the title game? Because it is not based solely on a win/loss record? (which wouldn't work either because you could have 10 teams with a perfect season as long as they schedule only weak opponents.

My main argument is that the BCS selection process is for the most part subjective. You have the computers that crunch out all kinds of numbers that are all at least suggestive of strength of a team, and then you have the voters... let's not even get started on that one.

Let's look at it from a different angle. Take the "Miss America" contests. Competitors are judged based on beuty, "talent", and some sort of gay marriage opinion. This contest generates less money than the BCS, but I would assume it still generates a good amount of money. Should congress hold a hearing as to who should have won the title? Im sure we can come up with at least one reason why congress's powers are triggered by the commerce clause, no?

Why is the BCS different?

When subjective reasoning is invovled, you cannot reach a conclusion that everyone will consider to be fair. The mere fact that someone feels slighted does not mean that something is illegal.

Blogger Jimmy H -- 7/21/2009 9:21 PM  

Jimmy H,

I don't think the BCS is analogous to Miss America. Miss America would only be analogous if there were 10 women competing every year and the top 6 most talented, beautiful women determined a process for selecting the winner and created a system that gave them a clear advantage to winning over the other 4 women simply because the 6 believe that they are prettier and more talented than the other 4.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 7/24/2009 7:40 AM  


"the top 6 most talented, beautiful women according to them..."

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 7/24/2009 11:53 AM  

Coming late to this party.

Real harm is an obvious point, but there should be a public policy element.

I continue to believe there is a point in intercollegiate athletics where a line should be drawn and as a matter of public policy tax deductions should be denied for donations, sponsorships, and rights fees that result in receiving tickets or ticket priority, parking, priority for post-season tickets, etc.

Somewhere there is a line crossed whether it be at $25 million budgets or $75 million budgets or $100,000 in spending per FTE or $300,000 per FTE. Once the line is crossed on athletic spending, the Federal and state treasury shouldn't be used to subsidize the activity.

Either keep your spending below the cap (and gasp, transfer the excess to academics) or funnel all the money through a blind trust with no reporting to athletics to assign the goodies, or tell donors and sponsors to forego the tax benefits.

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Blogger Anthony -- 8/19/2009 3:01 AM  

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