Commentary Magazine


Congress Should Leave the NFL Alone

You may have thought the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has its hands full right now investigating the Internal Revenue Service scandal as well as a host of other pressing issues. But never underestimate the craving of politicians on both sides of the aisle to grandstand on television. Republicans and Democrats may disagree about what to think about the IRS or how closely to press the administration about questions of official misconduct. Yet they are united when it comes to their desire to divert scarce time and energy from their actual responsibilities in order to hold hearings at which they can drag officials of the National Football League and perhaps even some famous players in front of the cameras where members of Congress can lecture them about their need to set a good example for America’s youth.

That’s right. The same Congress that can’t pass a budget, deal with the debt, cope with an impending entitlements crisis or even be counted on to investigate government scandals impartially is preparing to focus like a laser beam on the question of whether professional football players are being tested for every possible performance enhancing drug. As Politico reports, Oversight Committee chair Republican Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings—last seen sparring over how to frame the issue of the IRS scandal—are working together to use the threat of a hearing on Human Growth Hormone testing to force the NFL to alter its policies. Whatever one may think of the use of HGH, the league’s testing policies or even of football, this bipartisan decision to involve Congress in what is a non-government business negotiation between the NFL and the NFL player’s union is an unconscionable interference in private commerce. For Issa and Cummings to waste a moment of the federal government’s time on this issue is yet another example of how a naked lust for publicity drives congressional action more than principle, let alone the urgent needs of citizens.

Let’s concede that the use of PEDs is not a good thing and that all sports are better off when the participants aren’t cheating or potentially endangering their health to gain an edge on their opponents.

But the question that neither Issa nor Cummings can honestly answer is how any of this is remotely the business of Congress. Like its previous excursion into the issue of the use of steroids by baseball players, any congressional pressure or hearings are strictly a matter of House members seeking some extra moments in the limelight. While they will spout off about fair play and their wish to prevent kids from emulating the dirty practices of their heroes, what will really be going on is an effort to cash in on the celebrity of players and league officials while posing as the guardians of what is now the country’s most popular—at least in terms of television ratings—sport, even though none of this is any of the government’s business.

Defenders of the committee will say that without their grandstanding on baseball, the sport might not have instituted tough new rules to prevent steroid use. That may be so. But just because something is desirable or the public is interested in it doesn’t make it a congressional responsibility. Lots of private matters might be cleaned up if they were subjected to the bright lights of congressional scrutiny. But the only reason Congress involved itself in baseball or seeks to do so in football has to do with camera time for the members, not an intrinsic government interest.

As for the other excuse for this travesty—the need to protect kids from steroids or HGH—it is a thin reed to support such an endeavor. On the list of dangers to American teenagers, the threat from steroid use on the part of young athletes is so remote that it barely registers in statistics. There are scores of other, more pressing problems for kids that might be worth the Congress’ time. But few other issues bring the alluring prospect of allowing Issa, Cummings and the rest of their publicity-hungry colleagues to talk down to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or any players the committee might be able to drag into a hearing room.

There are serious issues around the question of HGH use, especially since it is legal to use it in many instances. This particular drug highlights an issue that is largely overlooked amid all the preaching about steroids. HGH shows just how thin the line is between legal and proper medical care that can enable athletes to recover more quickly or completely from injury and substances that are considered beyond the pale.

But its doubtful that such nuanced arguments would be discussed in such a hearing since the whole point of it will be to force the league to enact more stringent testing in order to avoid being shamed by Congress on national television.

The basic purpose of government is to protect our freedom and to provide for the common defense as well as the common good. It is not to ensure that either the National Football League, Major League Baseball or any other sport conform to specific ideas of fairness or what drugs may be used and which must be banned. No matter what happens as a result of these threats to the NFL and the hearings that may ensue, the entire endeavor is an illegitimate use of congressional power.

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