As American as Baseball, Apple Pie and Congressional Hearings: How Government Intervention In Sport Brings to Light Larger Issues By Sarah E. Olson

I am sure that many of you have flipped through the news channels or checked your favorite newspaper website and seen Roger Clemens’ claims of innocence in the congressional hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball this week. Despite accusations of his steroid use from his former trainer Brian McNamee and an affidavit concerning his admittance of using HGH from his former teammate Andy Pettitte, Clemens has maintained his innocence throughout his testimonies in front of congress. My daily life revolves around the sporting world and I have been encountering the obvious buzz from the fan community. However, the general reaction from the spectator community has surprised me. Besides fans taking sides in the “he-said-he-said” drama unfolding, spectators have been relatively silent on larger societal issues that this case brings up.

 

It was not until yesterday that I finally encountered a critically thinking sports fan while chatting with my father. Besides calling me to make sure that I am surviving graduate life, my dad often calls to get my opinions on recent sporting news and controversies. This conversation was not any different and as soon as he was satisfied that I was indeed eating, paying my rent, and working diligently on my thesis and job hunt he transitioned into chat on the Clemens issue. After confessing that he supported Clemens at first but that after watching the coverage he can’t bring himself to believe his claims anymore, he made a profound statement (although it contained a bit of profanity) saying, “All I know is congress should not be involved in this s***”. Thank you, Dad. You are the first person outside of The Corpus members I have engaged that questioned the absurdity of the government’s involvement in Major League Baseball. Although government intervention in MLB matters is by no means a new development, it is an important link for citizens to understand and to interrogate.

 

Sports and government have been deeply intertwined since the birth of the nation, and especially since the dawn of industrialization. The development of the “uniquely American” baseball, football, and basketball can directly be attributed to their promotion by educational and governmental institutions that saw these sports as important tools or “safety valves” to assimilate immigrants to the capitalist industrial values of American life. For example, the NCAA was born out of a series of conferences called by President Theodore Roosevelt to reform and encourage collegiate football. In 1905 the loosely regulated world of collegiate football had become so dangerous that three players died during play and there was an outcry against the barbarity of the sport. Roosevelt called the leading universities together to find a way to reform the sport and simultaneously endorse the activity because in his eyes it fostered strength and hard work in the future leaders of the country. This is only one of the many examples of direct government intervention (in this case from the nation’s highest official) that has occurred since the beginning of collegiate and professional organized American sports. What is important to note is that the relationship between the federal government and sport-governing bodies is not a new phenomenon.

 

However, just because this intervention has been occurring for several generations does not mean that it is excusable or that its residual effects, seen in the congressional baseball hearings, are appropriate or should be sanctioned. Wouldn’t you think that government has other pressing issues, such as war, poverty, health care, or education to name a few, that they can use their time and our money to deal with and interrogate instead of solving the steroid problem prevalent in professional sports which should be dealt with by its own governing powers. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post states, “The world might look very different today if Congress had spent as much energy probing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as it did Wednesday examining Roger Clemens’ derriere”[1].

 

Although I have strong opinions on government intervention in professional sports, I have even stronger opinions about the sporting fans that take this as the status quo and do not question the process. Sport is not neutral and its existence is not solely for recreation, entertainment or to encourage community interaction and spirit. Sport is a politically and socially charged space and its perceived neutrality is dangerous. I get discouraged by the vast majority of sports fans and their failure to question the sporting structure because this is how sport is used by the ruling forces, such as the federal government, as a form of control over the general population. However, I am thankful for the people I encounter outside of my program that take the time to analyze the larger meaning and impact of sport on our society. I believe that the work within PCS can help to shed light on the social power of sport and it is this possibility that helps me continue to pursue my academic career. I can only hope that my seemingly small actions (such as writing this blog on a Friday night) can encourage someone to look at the next controversial issue in sport and/or physical culture and see beyond the superficial questions of the media circus surrounding it to the heart of the matter.


[1] Milbank, D. (2008 February 13). Bottom Feeders. The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldextra.com/component/option,com_contentwire/task,view/id,17612/Itemid,53/. Thanks to Laurel Davis’s help from the NASSS listserv.

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