- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain appeared this week at halftime of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” and were asked “what is the one thing you would change in sports?” For McCain, it was the persistent problem of performance-enhancing drugs. For Obama, it was college football’s Bowl Championship Series.

“I think it is about time that we had playoffs in college football,” Obama said. “I’m fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams - the top eight teams right at the end. You got a playoff. Decide on a national champion.”

The candidates just responded to lighthearted questions during a football game, but they aren’t the first politicians to suggest they could use their influence to improve sports.

McCain, for instance, criticized mixed martial arts and has been heavily involved in issues relating to boxing. More than a dozen lawmakers recently questioned the NFL’s decision to air games on its league-owned cable network. And last year, seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens sat before Congress to address allegations that he illegally took human growth hormone. Clemens’ testimony came not long after President Bush voiced concern over baseball’s steroid problem in a State of the Union address.

Obama appeared jovial when discussing his problems with the BCS, but his colleagues in Congress have been serious about the issue. The Senate first examined complaints about the BCS in 2003, and in 2005 a House subcommittee held a hearing on what it called a “deeply flawed system.” This past spring, three congressmen from Idaho, Hawaii and Georgia presented a resolution that would reject the BCS on grounds that it was an illegal restriction on trade.

If history is a guide, Congress will never present serious legislation on the issue of college bowls. But history also has shown lawmakers can persuade the sports industry’s top brass.

Appearing before Congress can be stressful and embarrassing, so officials loathe to find themselves in a position of defending their actions or policies. Ideally, a sports commissioner would prefer to say as little as possible to avoid exposing league problems, but being terse and evasive can be equally damaging.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig often gets a bad rap from fans, and much of that stems from his wrinkled performances during hearings on issues relating to baseball’s economics and to steroids.

And on top of the potential for public humiliation, lawmakers always dangle the threat of legislation and regulation, which sports leagues almost unanimously disdain.

After members of Congress threatened to impose anti-steroid legislation on sports last year, baseball toughened its steroid policies and commissioned an investigation led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. Baseball’s concern over the integrity of the sport may have been genuine, but the timing was not coincidental.

Even the 2005 dispute between Comcast and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which kept Nationals fans from seeing many of the team’s games on television, might have continued to drag on if Congress hadn’t gotten involved. Though lawmakers never presented any legislation, they urged the involvement of the Federal Communications Commission, which forced the two parties to sit and negotiate a settlement.

Whether McCain or Obama will spend their time weighing in on issues related to sports is still unclear. But it would be naive to suggest that they wouldn’t.

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