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Amid Ailing Economy, Members of Congress Delve Into Sports Issues

November 14th 2011

Sports Topics - sport

Members of Congress have recently delved into the world of sports, weighing in on the NCAA, athletes’ drug abuse, conference alignments and the Penn St. sex scandal.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) labeled the NCAA one of the “most ruthless organizations ever created by mankind.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said it is harder to change the college football postseason than win the presidency. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) publicly floated the need for an ethics investigation into Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) lobbying for the University of Louisville to join the Big 12 Conference.

Congress has a long history of getting involved in sports controversies. One of the most prominent examples was a 1995 bill to repeal major league baseball’s anti-trust exemption as a threat to induce an end to that year’s strike. Ten years later, Congress held hearings that led to baseball toughening its steroid testing policy.

But Capitol Hill’s interest in the sports world has intensified this fall. Members of Congress have publicly commented, written letters or introduced legislation on sports matters more than a half dozen separate times in the past three weeks alone.

“We’ve seen a lot more congressional interest in various sports issues,” said Michael McCann, Director of Vermont Law School’s Sports Law Institute.

The NCAA has been a favorite target of the increased attention. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) joined Rush in criticizing the NCAA’s treatment of student athletes, requesting hearings investigating their due process rights.

Conyers acknowledged that some might question congressional involvement in sports, especially amid the nation’s high unemployment rate.

“I fully appreciate the concerns some may raise concerning our [Judiciary] Committee devoting a portion of its time to these issues,” he wrote in the hearing request.

“I would note, however, that modern-day college athletics is a massive business, with widespread economic impact on athletes, their families, broadcasters, and fans as well as universities and colleges all over the country.”

McCain also noted that Congress needs to tread carefully in this area. “I always worry about Congress being involved in things, because I’m a conservative,” McCain told a sports radio show, but he pushed ahead in calling for hearings on NFL testing for human growth hormone.

McCann, of Vermont Law School, said lawmakers can open themselves to criticism when it tackles sports. “I think the public is generally skeptical of Congress, and that skepticism is amplified when members of Congress spend time on matters that, on the surface, seem far outside core issues of social concern, like the economy or terrorism,” McCann said.

After winning control of the House last year, GOP leaders banned resolutions congratulating sports teams.

“Major things are not going on, and we’re recognizing the University of Texas men’s diving team? Come on,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in protesting the practice in 2010.

The House did pass a bipartisan measure on Oct. 26 authorizing the Treasury secretary to make coins commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney mocked the House last month, saying the GOP-led House “has spent time on issues like commemorative Hall of Fame baseball coins.”

McCann said the appropriateness of congressional involvement varies. “When it came to concussions in football, I think there is a public interest,” McCann said. “In other regards when it comes to conference realignment and the [Bowl Championship Series], it’s a more questionable use of their time.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) have both introduced legislation to improve children’s football helmet safety.

Pennsylvania Sens. Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D) had nominated Penn State football coach Joe Paterno for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. They withdrew their support for the measure following Paterno’s firing on Nov. 9 in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal at the university.

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) called on the Department of Education to investigate the situation, which it is now doing. Former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum said he is sure Paterno is as “sick and stunned about it as everyone else.” Santorum also expressed his regret for nominating the alleged perpetrator for an award nine years ago.

Members have not just gotten involved at their state’s schools when there is a scandal. McConnell’s involvement was simply support of a beloved alma mater. The New York Times reported that McConnell’s lobbying of the Big 12 conference boosted Louisville’s prospects for admission.

West Virginia University also vied for the spot, and its junior senator, Manchin, wasn’t shy in expressing his views.

He suggested that the Senate Commerce panel, headed by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), might need to investigate the ethics of McConnell’s actions. Manchin also said Louisville is not as good as West Virginia, saying Louisville “needs to toughen up.”

West Virginia ended up winning the Big 12 spot, though Louisville beat the Mountaineers last week, 38-35.

Retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), the owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, is in the thick of negotiations to break a lockout. President Obama recently said he is “a little heartbroken” that the lockout has delayed the start of the NBA season.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) led a group of Democratic senators in writing to Major League Baseball, requesting that its new contract with the players union ban players’ use of chewing tobacco at all games.

And California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D) introduced legislation waiving certain restrictions on foreign vessels in U.S. waters to allow San Francisco to host the America’s Cup sailing race next year.


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