Congress: the ultimate referee

Like many NFL fans, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has gripes about the New England Patriots, who are accused of videotaping opponents to steal signals and win Super Bowls.

Unlike other fans, Specter can do a lot more than cry in his beer or complain on talk radio.

Specter, a devoted Philadelphia Eagles fan, is the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has used that post to call for a congressional investigation of the Patriots scandal, known as Spygate, if the NFL fails to remedy the scandal to his satisfaction.

Specter’s actions are merely one example of the aggressive approach Congress has taken on sporting controversies ranging from football to baseball to horseracing. The approach has led to backlash from commentators who have criticized Specter and other members of Congress for overreaching and getting involved in trivial matters at a time when the country is at war and suffering from an economic slowdown.

Besides Spygate, lawmakers have interrogated Roger Clemens and other baseball stars on their alleged use of steroids in hearings broadcast on CNN and ESPN. Later this month, Congress will hold hearings on horseracing in the wake of this year’s Kentucky Derby tragedy that resulted in the death of a horse.

Congress has also examined the health problems of retired professional football players, and has questioned whether college football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS) treats all schools fairly.

These actions have forced members to discuss whether they should be the ultimate referee on sports-related issues.

The answer from many is no, though distinctions between acceptable congressional inquiries and wasteful action is different from member to member. Often the distinctions are based on special interests, personal attachment to athletics or potential gain from their pursuits.

“There’s no end to the drive of members to get good, cheap publicity,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), stating one reason why lawmakers go after high-profile sports issues.

Specter’s Spygate press conference drew dozens of sports reporters to the Capitol in addition to the congressional press corps, and the media hordes at the Clemens hearing earlier this year were fodder for their own story.

Former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), a record-holding NFL receiver before his political career, sees the publicity lawmakers can bring to high-profile sports scandals as a benefit.

“Congress can be useful in bringing things to the public consciousness,” Largent said.

He added that Congress should continue raising awareness of steroid use among pro athletes until the leagues take significant action but questioned Specter’s inquiry into Spygate since the NFL has already fined the Patriots and stripped them of their top draft pick.

Largent does not believe Congress should take its curiosity of sports issues any further, however, by approving legislation to regulate professional sports, he said.

Specter has said he’s not after media exposure, but insisted the NFL deserves close scrutiny because of its antitrust exemption status, which affords the league certain benefits in broadcasting its games. He also said the league provides some of the country’s most visible role models.

“If you can cheat in the NFL, you can cheat in college, you can cheat in high school, you can cheat on your grade-school math test,” Specter said. “There’s no limit as to what you can do, and I think they owe the public a lot more candor and a lot more credibility.”

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) believes Congress should get involved in high-level sports scandals when they send the wrong message to the country’s younger generation. Drug abuse is a good example, he said.

“I think largely it should be a fairly limited role, except when we see them go way off course,” said Conrad, whose is married to Lucy Calautti, a lobbyist for Major League Baseball. “It is legitimate when Congress has a role when something goes against the national interest.”

Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif), who headed the House’s hearings on Clemens, also said Congress should only look into problems in high-level sports if those problems have a negative impact on children.

“I look at this from a health point of view, as it affects children,” Waxman said when explaining why his Oversight and Government Reform Committee called Clemens to the Hill.

Other sports-related issues taken up by this Congress don’t have as clear a connection to America’s youth, but the lawmakers driving the inquiries found ways to explain their actions.

Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) recently co-sponsored a bill asking for the Justice Department to investigate whether the BCS, college football’s championship system, illegally restricts trade. The three represent states that have college football teams that had successful 2007 seasons but were spurned by the BCS.

Simpson didn’t think Congress should have held hearings on Clemens, but sees the BCS issue as different because “it’s about money.” He said he’d like to know whether the BCS’s current system, which arguably favors a select number of teams, breaks the law.

Simpson did admit that some people have wondered why he’s spending time on this issue.

“I’ve got constituents who say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” he said.

Representatives for Abercrombie and Westmoreland also said the legislation is more about looking into the “big business” of sports than helping their teams become No. 1.

Former Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), the legendary University of Nebraska head football coach who is now the school’s athletic director, said he doesn’t think Congress is serving the public interest by trying to get involved in the BCS.

Osborne generally sees little role for the legislative body in sports-related issues. Like several of his former colleagues, though, he said Congress’s probing of baseball players’ steroid use can serve the public by dampening its effect on the pro athlete-idolizing youth.

Rep. Linda Sanchez’s (D-Calif.) sports issue is about protecting retired jocks, not young people. Her House Judiciary Committee subcommittee released a report and held hearings on the health issues of retired professional football players, a population some estimate to be as small as 1,000.

Like Specter, Sanchez cited the NFL’s antitrust exemptions when explaining why the issue deserves Congress’s attention. She also said “there is a fairness issue” since many of the retired players, who suffer from serious health problems but don’t enjoy the swollen salaries and other benefits of today’s professional athletes, “made the league what it is today.” She said she hopes the league will begin to provide for the healthcare needs of its former athletes but added she’ll hold more hearings on the issue if she has to.

Sanchez and her colleagues are following in the footsteps of many of their predecessors, whose sports investigations ranged from a full review of boxing to the overall operation of baseball. According to the Office of the House Historian, Congress even set up a House Select Committee on Professional Sports in 1976 to conduct investigations “into all aspects of professional sports for the express purpose of determining the need for legislation and other forms of government intervention.” As for steroids-related scandals, lawmakers’ modern-day investigations stretch back to the 1980s.

Nevertheless, J.C. Watts, a former House Republican from Oklahoma who made a name for himself as a professional football player before coming to Washington, said he learned from his time in Congress that there are many other issues lawmakers should take on.

“I promise you there are a thousand things every single day that could in a substantive way take precedence and priority over the BCS or Spygate or even, in my opinion, Roger Clemens,” Watts said.