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Pro Sports Can Run, But They Can’t Hide

by Julian E. Zelizer on May 23, 2005

Julian E. Zelizer

The chair of the House Government Reform Committee, Tom Davis, House Democrat Henry Waxman and Senate Republican John McCain have announced that they will propose legislation to impose uniform drug testing standards on the four major U.S. professional sports leagues. The suspicions about superstar athletes such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have caused many legislators to doubt that sports officials can crack down effectively on steroid abuse.

Yet, according to many Americans, Congress has overstepped its boundaries by holding hearings about steroid abuse and drug testing and calling for legislation. At best, critics say, grandstanding legislators are using the problems of athletes to gain notoriety for themselves. At worst, critics contend that the investigation represents a moral McCarthyism that seems to be sweeping Washington. One polling firm, the Rasmussen Reports, found that only 22 percent of Americans believe that Congress should become involved in the problems of baseball. According to one 74-year-old man from Arizona, “They got a lot more (stuff) than baseball to worry about….”

It’s true that Congress has many more important things to worry about. But systematic drug abuse by prominent athletes is a legitimate issue for it to consider. One function of Congress has always been to hold hearings about issues that worry the public. During the 1950s, Congress responded to concerns about juvenile delinquency by holding hearings on the matter. There were fears that the new stars in the film, publishing and music business were encouraging young Americans to mimic the James Deans of the world rather than the Pat Boones.

In 1954, Senators Estes Kefauver and Robert Hendrickson conducted hearings into the comic book industry, which people pointed to as a corrupting influence on America’s youth. Legislators brought comic book publishers, cartoonists and psychiatrists before them to quiz them about the content of the magazines and how they affected readers. The committee produced a report on comic books that resulted in the industry adopting a self-regulatory code.Ê

In 1959, a House subcommittee investigated a television quiz show scandal during which a Columbia University teacher, Charles Van Doren, admitted that he had been handed questions in advance. One year later, Congress dragged the music industry into the hearing room to answer questions about disc jockeys who were taking money and drugs from the record industry in exchange for playing songs.

Nor can the sports industry claim immunity from government scrutiny. Sports have received extensive government assistance at the national, state and local levels. It’s dishonest for baseball officials to claim that a steroid abuse scandal among players and league officials is “private business.” The reality is that the sports industry has greatly benefited from exemptions to the anti-trust laws, subsidies for stadium construction and an assortment of federal tax breaks.

Legislators who live and work in Washington are well aware of the connection. The price of obtaining a new baseball team was hundreds of millions of dollars for Washington’s new state-of-the-art stadium. If baseball wants to continue to benefit government support, the leagues must understand that some politicians will demand greater public scrutiny in response to a scandal such as steroid abuse.

The fact that that professional baseball has benefited from an exemption from the anti-trust laws since 1922 was the subject of congressional hearings in 1958. The exemption allowed baseball owners to ward off threats from new leagues and control the costs of players. The Senate subcommittee on monopoly and antitrust brought the New York Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, and other stars, including Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson, to appear to testify about the “reserve clause” that limited the labor rights of players. Stengel frustrated and amused hearing participants when he used his famous double talk to baffle legislators.

As it always had, Congress refused to take action against the owners. It was not until the late 1980s that players started to enjoy free agency, six decades after the Supreme Court ruled that baseball was not subject to federal regulations.

Congress also can legitimate its current steroid investigation on the basis of a solid precedent of looking into sports corruption. The Senate conducted hearings in 1960, for instance, into the role of organized crime in professional boxing. Former middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta made a stunning appearance when he admitted that he had thrown a fight in 1947. LaMotta went through with the testimony even though mobsters had threatened to kill him.

If we discover that our national pastimes are filled with doped-up players, athletes and owners should not be so surprised when Congress comes knocking at their door.


Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of History at Boston University and the author of "On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1945-2000" (2004), is a writer for the History News Service.