Do Politics and Sports Mix?

Tonight, U.S. President Barack Obama is throwing out the first pitch at the MLB All-Star Game in St. Louis. He’s following this with an appearance in the FOX broadcast booth where he’ll likely talk all things sports and baseball related. During the 2008 election campaign, the media kept mentioning that Obama would try to get college football to abolish the BCS and institute a playoff. That’s not even mentioning that championship sports teams all get invites to the White House to meet the President. But is there any reason why politics and sports should mix?

Let’s start with how athletes get involved in politics. The only real interaction with politicians that athletes have is on the campaign trail. Politicians and athletes make appearances to boost the profile of the politician. This one is especially useful in the run up to an election though it could happen at any opportunistic time. I already mentioned that a championship team will turn up at the White House for a photo op with the President. They give the President a jersey with his name on it, smile for the cameras, and crack a few jokes for the assembled press.

When politicians get involved in sports, we’re dealing with the big time. The stakes are higher. The issues are more serious. No one hands over any jerseys and no one tells any jokes.

The most obvious example would be the massive Congressional inquiries into steroid use in Major League Baseball. That’s not to mention the interest in a college football playoff. State and local governments are often involved in funding the construction of new stadiums and arenas. And everyone treats this as serious business.

I want to separate my opinion about funding stadium construction from the other government interference in sports. I can completely understand the reasoning behind the different governments getting involved in funding stadiums. While the millions (sometimes hundreds of millions) of dollars that governments put into new arenas can be put to far better use (like infrastructure and tax cuts), they are often handcuffed by team threats to move and fan campaigns to keep the team in town. If the politicians want to be re-elected and keep out of town money coming into the economy, they would be best served to give into the team’s demands. Given what the money could be spent on otherwise, giving money to a sports franchise could be political suicide but I think it’s lose-lose situation for politicians. Speaking of massive government concessions to sports teams, do you think New Yorkers would be very understanding if the Mets or Yankees built their new stadium in East Rutherford, NJ because they didn’t get enough money from the City of new York?

The other two things, steroid use and college playoffs, are more serious. By getting involved with those subjects, governments are getting involved in areas that should fall solely under the watch of the league administering these rules. It’s not as though league are standing pat on these topics. At times, college football looks like it actually wants to go to a playoff. If they can’t come up with a playoff format with a format, money distribution and logistics that everyone can agree on, what are the chances that a Congressional oversight committee will come up with a solution that everyone will like? As for steroids, most leagues have extensive drug testing policies which have become progressively tougher in recent years. Did Congress ever need to ask about that? No, because it wouldn’t be much of an assumption that public pressure to crack down on steroid cheats would force leagues into stiffening their policies without congressional interference.

Anyway, when you get right down to it, the fact of the matter is this: Sports is entertainment. You don’t see Congress getting involved in the drug habits of Hollywood stars. Despite the number of arrests for various criminal offences and the seemingly increasing number of celebrities entering rehab, there is no Congressional outcry for drug testing in Hollywood. Nobody seems to want everybody with a SAG card to be forced to pee in a cup at least once a month. What’s wrong with banning an actor (or actress) from filming, auditioning, or receiving a script for two months the first time they test positive for an illegal drug? What’s wrong with giving someone with a DUI conviction three months off work to think about what they did? Oh, that’s right. It’s entertainment. But so is sports? No, but this is different?

Is it really, though? What is the difference between and injecting steroids and snorting cocaine? One enhances performance while the other gets you high. One has a short-term benefit and causes long-term health issues while the other… does too. One can help you earn more money while the other doesn’t. People tell their kids not to use either. Cocaine is far more likely to destroy lives than steroids. Both are used by people that know damn well what could happen if they use them. So what is the difference? I think it’s that people feel lied to by steroid users. They feel cheated by steroid users. They love you and what you do on the juice but the second that one thinks that you’re cheating, you’re a villain. However, no one really cares what a star puts up their nose but they do care what an athlete sticks in their butt.

What this should all come down to is that these people are all grown and able to make their own informed decision about what they put in their body. The same can be said for the leagues and associations that sanction athletic competition. They know what they have to do to keep their athletes safe, the competition fair and the fans happy. They don’t need government to come sticking their nose into someone else’s business. They have plenty of more important things to deal with than college sports playoffs and performance enhancing drugs. After all, we’re in the midst of an economic crisis and there’s an angry man nuclear weapons in North Korea.

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