5 Stupid Government Interventions in Sports

It didn't begin (and won't end) with Lance Armstrong getting stripped of his Tour de France titles.


The cyclist Lance Armstrong has never tested positive for banned substances despite years of being dogged by allegations that he used so-called performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France titles between 1999 and 2005 and was given a clean bill of health after each victory.

Yet Armstrong was stripped of his Tour titles recently by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which is actually a "non-governmental" organization that receives about $10 million a year in funding from the Office of National Drug Control Policy [pdf].

The USADA claims to have at least 10 former teammates who would testify against Armstrong. Armstrong has declined to participate further in inquiries. Under USADA rules, that counts as a confession and USADA says it has the authority to strip Armstrong of titles won in France because it is part of World Anti-Doping Agency and that WADA is bound by its members' decisions. Meanwhile, the International Cycling Union, which organizes the Tour de France, said it is waiting on the USADA's full explanation of its case against Armstrong. 

Whatever you think of Armstrong's guilt or innocence — and whether he's received due process or is getting screwed — his predicament underscores how government-funded agencies intervene in sports. Governments have never shied from meddling in athletics, in ways both big and small. Here are five egregious examples worth pondering in the wake of l'affaire Armstrong.

5. The Feds Tackle Steroids in Baseball

Congress' first foray into investigating steroid use in America's pastime this century came in 2005, when the House Government Reform Committee (seriously) hauled in Mark McGwire, who broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998. McGwire initially refused to answer questions about steroid use, but in 2010 he admitted to havig used steroids during his record-breaking season.

Federal investigators grew more aggressive in pursuing performance-enhancing drugs. A multi-year investigation led to Barry Bonds spending a month under house arrest in 2011 for lying to a grand jury in 2003. The Department of Justice actually investigated Lance Armstrong for two years.

A second round of hearings in Congress about steroid use in baseball came in 2008. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell was appointed by baseball commissioner Bud Selig to conduct an independent investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball and the House eventually held hearings about the issue, with Committee Chairman Henry Waxman claiming 500,000 teenagers have used illegal steroids. The highly publicized hearings led to no action by Congress, though pitching ace Roger Clemens was brought up on felony perjury charges for lying to Congress. He was acquitted earlier this year.


4. Washington pushes college football toward a playoff system

In 2009, Congress turned its attention from professional baseball to college football.  Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) targeted the Bowl Championship Series, a post-season system for college football that involves 10 teams playing five post-season games, including the BCS National Championship Game between the two teams selected as the best in the country. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Barton likened the BCS system to "communism". It was a bipartisan affair, though, with President Barack Obama stepping in to use the bully pulpit to get college football to dump the BCS and adopt a playoff system. Earlier this year, BCS commissioners finally did that, with a playoff system to take effect starting in 2014.

As an historical aside, President Teddy Roosevelt is often described as having  "saved" college football by stepping in to regulate the game in the early 20th century. After many injuries and a few gridiron-related deaths, college football had become the target of a campaign to ban it for its brutality. Roosevelt pushed the creation of the 10-yard first down system and a ban on mass formations and gang tackling.


3. Targeting Mixed Martial Arts

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a favorite punching bag of politicians looking to meddle in the realm of sports, especially now that it's replacing boxing as a spectator sport. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a big fan of boxing, has called MMA "human cockfighting." Thailand banned MMA altogether to protect their muy thai business. During the 1990s MMA was banned in more than 40 states. Reason's Greg Beato noted a few years ago how politicians' efforts to crack down on mixed martial arts actually led MMA's largest enterprise, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), to make changes that helped bring it into the mainstream; by 2006 it had beaten boxing and wrestling in pay-per-view revenue. In May, Vermont became the 46th state to regulate mixed martial arts under its athletic commission and last year the UFC sued New York state over its 1997 ban on the live broadcasting of mixed martial arts.


2. Europe's sports ministries

If the idea of state-level athletic commissions isn't statist enough, in Europe they have entire national ministries dedicated to it. The all-encompassing project of Europe does not exclude the realm of sports. Even — or maybe especially — in the midst of economic crises, European sports ministers declared "[a]lthough we live in an age of austerity measures [ed. note: they don't], it would be symbolical in the present poor economic situation to succeed in establishing a European framework programme by 2014, which could provide financial support to sports."

In Great Britain, the Football Association is scrambling with reforms to avoid intervention by Parliament. Dear Old Blighty may be spared the euro as a currency, but it participates fully in Europe's ways when it comes to nationalizing sports.


1. Title IX and Regulatory Overreach

When what's known as Title IX went into law in 1972, it prohibited educational institutions that received federal assistance to exclude women from or deny them the benefits of educational programs. Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) inserted the amendment into an education funding re-authorization act and the bill was signed into law by Richard Nixon with no mention of the equal rights language. Over the next two years, various senators tried to carve some kind of exemptions for sports, but Title IX regulations were announced in 1975 and began to be implemented in 1978. The NCAA sued but lost. While Title IX has often been credited for the rise of female athletes in sports, it's also invited regulators and judges to influence the decisions of athletic programs, sometimes leading to schools limiting athletic opportunities for males to meet compliance.

And just a few years ago, Title IX was responsible for a court ruling that cheerleading, dominated by women and sometimes identified as a sport, is actually not.