Why is Congress always meddling with sports?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Dec. 9 2009 6:55 PM

Interference!

Why is Congress always meddling with sports?

Joe Barton. Click image to expand.
Rep. Joe Barton

A House subcommittee approved a bill Wednesday that would prohibit the NCAA from dubbing its title contest a "national championship" unless it switches to a playoff system. (As of now, the winning teams are selected via the Bowl Championship Series, a complex system that uses voters and computer rankings to determine the sport's top two teams.) Congress also regularly meddles with Major League Baseball—investigating steroid use and the like. Why does Congress have the right to interfere with the inner workings of college and professional sports?

Because sports are considered interstate commerce. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states. The Supreme Court has interpreted that power to include sports leagues—with some notable exceptions—since they operate across state borders. That gives panels like the House Committee on Energy and Commerce jurisdiction to look into just about any sports-related issue. Likewise, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which investigated steroid use in baseball, has the right to probe "any matter with federal policy implications." Since federal law bans steroids, their transportation across state lines for use by professional athletes is Congress' business.

Advertisement

Congress also has the authority to write and revise antitrust laws, which the current championship selection system may be violating. The organizers of the BCS pick 10 teams to play in the various college bowls, including the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl. Six of these teams—the champions of the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10, and SEC—are automatically locked into getting a coveted—and lucrative—BCS bowl bid. According to critics, this favoritism prevents fair competition. A playoff, they say, would be a more equitable way to decide which teams make it to the finals.

While Congress intervenes in college sports to prevent the violation of antitrust rules, it often invokes professional baseball's exemption from such laws as a rationale for interference. The logic is that, in exchange for this privilege, Major League Baseball should be accountable to Congress. Baseball obtained a release from most antitrust laws in 1922 when the Supreme Court dubbed it a "pastime" rather than an industry. That exemption, however, was dialed back in 1997 with the passage of the Baseball Fans and Communities Protection Act, also known as the Curt Flood Act, after the St. Louis Cardinals center fielder who sued the National League when they tried to trade him to the Phillies in 1969. MLB—as well as the NBA and the NFL—still enjoy full exemption when it comes to television rights deals. The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 allows professional leagues to negotiate TV contracts with broadcast networks and split the proceeds among the teams.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Michael McCann of Vermont Law School, Geoffrey Rapp of the University of Toledo College of Law, Greg Skidmore of Kirkland and Ellis LLP, and Jeffrey Standen of Willamette University.

Become a fan of the Explainer on Facebook.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.