Senators, Steroids, and Spygate: One Man's Opinion

Jonathan RuddCorrespondent IJune 6, 2008

It seems these days that Congress is getting more and more involved in the realm of professional sports. Almost everywhere you turn, it's something else: first it was George Mitchell and the MLB steroids report, then the Congressional hearings of Mark McGwire, Palmeiro, etc., and, more recently, Arlen Specter and the NFL. 

I've heard thousands of voices asking the same question: "Why the heck would Congress get involved in professional sports?"

And the answer, my good friends? It was done for you. And your money.

The NFL and MLB consist, in the minds of Congress, as the owners of the respective franchises. Let's lump them all together, the owners of the NFL and MLB. The 32 NFL franchises plus the 30 MLB franchises is 62 teams. That's a lot of teams, right? And a lot of teams translates into a lot of owners.

Let's talk a moment about these owners. Who are they? They are 62 wealthy individuals, worth millions of dollars. They did not amass this wealth through their ownership of their respective teams, either; all 62 were extremely wealthy long before they owned these franchises. 

In my experience, the filthy rich people of the world did not get that way (and do not stay that way) by being foolish with their money. So why would a shrewd business-minded person gamble millions on a sports franchise?

Because it's not gambling at all. Even a lousy team can make money (see: Cincinnati Bengals). It is, in fact, easy money; you're usually guaranteed a TV contract, and you get a portion of the shared revenue from the league.

Fans, for the most part, are loyal, and, if you do achieve success within your league, you can count on a large number of bandwagon fans to boost your income. And should you overextend yourself, just sell or relocate your team. Not one owner has been sent to the poorhouse via football or baseball. Period.

Which brings us back to Congress. I understand that we were all taught in grade school that Congress enacts laws to help the good, decent, hardworking people of America, which may or may not be true. But I hope we can all agree that Congress also routinely passes laws to protect wealthy Americans' ability to make money via the preservation of the status quo—in other words, Congress doesn't rock the boat if the boat is full of rich people. (I guess that makes the boat a yacht.)

Which brings us back to the baseball hearings and steroid report. Congress investigated steroids because, just like our sports teams' owners, Congress is made up of extremely wealthy people who rely on contributions from other wealthy people to stay in office. It's a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" relationship. And if I've scratched your back to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, you're going to scratch mine whenever and wherever it itches.

So if we assume that MLB's handling of the steroids issue caused quite a few 'itchy backs' in the circle of MLB owners, we begin to see the picture. The thought amongst the owners seemed to be that MLB's front office, particularly Bud Selig, were handling the issue poorly.

Phone calls were made, reports were filed, and hearings were had on national television coast to coast...all to protect the image of the game. Had baseball been perceived as "soft" on steroids, or, even worse, discovered itself to be a bunch of juiced up 'roid heads mindlessly swinging for the fences while breaking legitimate record after legitimate record, the game would've been ruined in the minds of the fans.

And that's you.

And had you walked away from the game, you'd have taken your wallet with you.

And that would've been a sad day for MLB.

So they called in Congress, the governing body of the land, to slap a few wrists and ask some questions. Some folks may go to jail at some point, and some folks may not go to jail ever. But, today, all is well in baseball.

Arlen Specter and the NFL is a slightly different story with the same ending: Show me the money!

Specter used Spygate to try and ruffle feathers in the minds of league ownership by casting Roger Goodell as an incompetent stooge (which he may or may not be). Specter was calling for a full, formal investigation of the NFL, which, for no apparent reason at the time, he felt should include a re-working of the NFL's anti-trust exemption.

I thought this was a little odd at the time. The anti-trust exemption deals with the relocation of teams, right?

Yes, I found out. But among other things, it also covers broadcasting. That's when things added up. Comcast, the cable giant, is in a legal dispute with the NFL, claiming it's unfair for the NFL Network to put games solely on its own NFL Network, which is offered only on DirecTV. They also disagree with the NFL's decision to offer NFL Sunday ticket only on DitrecTV. They would like them moved to (surprise!) Comcast.

Google "Arlen Specter Comcast" and you'll find that Specter had taken $153,600 in campaign contributions from Comcast, or those affiliated with Comcast as employees, or through its PAC. The only firm that gave more money to Specter's campaign was the law firm of Blank Rome LLP, which represents Comcast and which has given Specter $358,453. 

Hmmmmm...$512,053 is a lot of bread. It seems to me that Specter is just protecting his own money on this one. It turns out that this makes the fourth time since 2005 that Specter has tried to have the NFL investigated in some form or another regarding its antitrust laws.

What else happened in 2005? The NFL announced it would show certain NFL games exclusively on the NFL Network starting in '06. The latest allegations of impropriety regarding the Spygate tapes is simply another example of Specter yelling that the house is on fire so that he may loot it in the chaos.

So, there you have it. Sports need to have the appearance of being a level playing field to keep us watching, and we need to keep watching (and buying) to keep the owners in business.

And Congress? Congress is simply doing what Congress has been doing since it was founded: protecting the interests of the rich.