Can John McCain Save Sports?

Can John McCain save sports? (ESPN)

No politician enjoys battling bad guys like John McCain, and these days, the senior senator from Arizona wants to save sports from its own worst elements. McCain, who was reelected to a fourth term in November, chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which basically means he can stick his thumb into any activity in America where dollars change hands. He is a genuine sports nut who says the best perk he gets is the chance to buy tickets to otherwise sold-out boxing matches. And he is a maverick, by temperament if not party label, who enjoys attacking various corporate interests and standing up for underdogs. In short, McCain styles himself a cross between Jefferson Smith and Ted Williams. He has an ambitious sports agenda, and he’s got the power and tenacity to push it. And with the sordid tale of BALCO and its founder, Victor Conte Jr., erupting across headlines on daily basis, McCain has something more, too: a scandal that’s throwing light on the sports underworld, and that just might swing public opinion behind the efforts of McCain and his fellow reformers.

McCain is fighting on at least four fronts to clean up sports. Closest to his heart are his efforts to fight corruption and improve the plight of beaten-down fighters in boxing. For years, he tried an incremental approach: he was a key sponsor of a 1996 law requiring medical care for boxers and a 2000 law banning conflicts of interest among managers and promoters. But these efforts have been almost completely unenforced by state agencies, and now McCain is proposing a national commission to straighten out the sweet science. “I’ll push for boxing reform until it passes,” McCain told in an interview at his Phoenix office. “The thing that gets me so involved is the exploitation of the boxers who, with rare exception, come from the lowest rung on our economic ladder, are least educated and are left many times after some years in the sport mentally impaired and financially broke.”

But it’s BALCO, specifically what McCain calls baseball’s “meaningless enforcement” of its rules about performance-enhancing drugs, where McCain has been making the biggest news recently. “I don’t care about Mr. Bonds or Mr. Sheffield or anybody else,” McCain barked to reporters after Conte went public with his story in ESPN the Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle reported grand jury testimony given by Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield. “What I care about are high school athletes who are tempted to use steroids because they think that’s the only way they can make it in the major leagues.”


All this crusading has made McCain a passel of enemies, and several of the men who would like to derail his plans have also gained power since the November elections. For example, Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat from the gambling state of Nevada, has become the Senate Minority Leader. Reid’s opposition stalled boxing reform for a full year in the Senate, though he’s now on board with McCain’s bill. But Reid also has worked assiduously to keep gambling on college athletics alive.

Then there’s Don King, who hustled all fall for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, even taping an anti-John Kerry ad, and who surely wants to use whatever newfound influence he has to sway the Bush administration against boxing reform. McCain laughs off King’s alliance with the GOP and predicts that if his national-commission bill passes the House of Representatives, President Bush will sign it.

And Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and Bud Selig ally, now chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Sensenbrenner came to Selig’s aid during the commissioner’s embarrassing testimony on contraction two years ago, and he’s not likely to give a green light to any legislation that interferes with baseball’s labor deal unless Selig approves it.

This is a classic political battle, with powerful interests backed by powerful congressional chairman and high-powered lobbyists. And, while none of this is really Congress’ business, it’s certainly good politics for McCain, who is clearly angling for the 2008 nomination.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, Sports, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Zed says:

    It would make sense that this is evidence of a McCain run for ’08

    It’s got all the weight of a campaign run,

    such as being off the subject of real national issues, which normally comes about by listening to advisors

    and showing that weakening that comes about when adressing the public about a public issue, I’m reminded of Gore and the musical censorship issue.

    while it may be an issue which needs to be addressed a politician can’t help but come off a little tacky in pursuit

    which is normally the exact opposite for ol rough and grough McCain

  2. Fersboo says:

    God forbid, but if the erstwhile Senator does run and survives the primary, I might just have to vote for my first Dem candidate for POTUS.

    I hope it doesn’t come to that. The Senator’s stench is much to great for me to hold my nose and pull the lever for him.

  3. Paul says:

    The only people who want McCain to run -well other than his family- is the media.

    I don’t know why McCain and the media have so much trouble accepting that he lost.

  4. Bithead says:

    The question more correctly asked, is “Can John McCain boost his own career?”

  5. Jim Z says:

    If McCain really wants to stick his nose into sports he ought to try and end the NHL lockout by forcing an agreement between the owners and the NHLPA. It would also give him the opportunity to display his skills in foreign policy when his efforts hit the fan in Canada

  6. bryan says:

    I’d second Jim Z and add that he could work on getting rid of the BCS system, he’d likely get my vote – for cabinet secretary of sports! 😉