Owners Get the Skinny on Steroids

Does Congress know something about sports fans and leagues we don't?


Knowing it would drive me insane, I managed to ignore Congressional grandstanding on steroids in pro sports until the other day, when our whizz-banging pols received testimony from a basketball player whose only possible connection to steroids would be the "before steroids" picture. I'm not saying Washington Wizard guard Juan Dixon is skinny, but when his 6'3″, 164-lb. body turns sideways, he disappears.

Even more divorced from reality was the accusation leveled by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) that the NBA's on-court dust-ups the past year might be evidence of a serious, heretofore unknown 'roid rage problem, precisely because the NBA does not a have a rigorous steroid testing regime in place. I'm not saying Lynch's ravings are the product of syphilis-addled brain, but how do we know he does not have syphilis unless the House institutes a strict random syphilis-testing policy?

That Dixon and various NBA officials and reps were even called before Congress to testify about steroids was more evidence that members are convinced this issue is political gold, devoid of any real downside no matter how far they stray into bizarre territory. What if they are right?

Although it may seem to us limited-government types that Congress is making a huge overreach into wholly private matters like mandatory drug testing for highly-paid entertainers, the sports leagues who employ them have deliberately fudged the public-private distinction when it suited them. Decades spent accepting state subsidies in the form of cash, land, and tax-favored financing—much of it explicitly tax-exempt thanks to the alleged "public purpose" of the sporting enterprise—have made the government a partner. Now the other cleat is dropping.

More importantly, sports fans have mostly cheered on these kinds of deals and firmly cast sports as the pinnacle of civic and social life. It should not surprise us, then, that politicians have noticed this state of affairs and are now acting to harness the energy and emotion tied to sports. There has been no great outcry from sports fans for Congress to leave their beloved leagues alone. In fact, there seems to much vicarious enjoyment of seeing all-powerful league commissioners like Bud Selig and David Stern squirm before vituperative interrogators. Sports journalists have been even more useless than normal, actively cheering for Congress to "clean up" pro sports in America as if every hit, shot, or pass is tainted without federal intervention.

Still, the leagues will surely do whatever they can to head off federal legislation mandating steroid testing regimes like those in place for international Olympic athletes, which prescribe lifetime bans as the ultimate punishment. Short of that, though, there will be plenty of room for dealmaking in Washington. So if the leagues will not push back on principle, and the fans and sports media are indifferent to or amused by it all, that leaves the players themselves to challenge any new testing requirements. Will they? A few might, but the recent history of pro sports labor matters says the league owners hold the high cards.

Recall (if you noticed in the first place, that is) that the NHL just bagged an entire season because owners wanted to pay players less. The NBA is ramping up for a summer of labor unrest with a new collective bargaining agreement due. The current agreement was forged in 1998, when the owners clearly had the upper hand: The players union basically collapsed as soon as the multi-million dollar paychecks stopped. With that precedent in mind, NBA owners only want more concessions this time around. The NFL, the one league that got anything like praise from Congress for its steroid policy, has long since seen management gain the advantage in labor disputes with players, with firm salary caps in place and an absolute, ruthless dedication to protecting the bottom line of each franchise. Only MLB went into the congressional arena with a player's union stance leery of more testing, but that was promptly swatted into the cheap-seats by ex-slugger Mark McGwire's disastrous performance before Congress. Since then, commissioner Selig has steadily ratcheted up the pressure for more testing.

So it certainly looks like Congress is only going to get heat from the leagues if legislation starts moving that obviously goes too far in the context of short pro careers—multi-year bans for a first offense, perhaps. But, short of that, some uniform, federally-designed steroid testing plan for pro athletes seems there for the taking.

I nominate movie stars to be next.