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 ESPN.com 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.