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Separation of State and Stadium: Congress' Record of Sport Regulation

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The wide world of sports often exists free of the laws that govern our behavior normally. For instance, cops aren't arresting hockey players for assault and battery after a fight. And teams can punish players for their off-field behavior, even if the authorities don't.

Every now and then, though, federal lawmakers dip their regulatory toes into the sporting water. The Washington Post recently took a look at when, why, and how Congress gets involved in sports, and it got us thinking about other famous (and infamous) times the legislative branch turned its eye to the playing field.

BCS or BS?

With the advent of the college football playoff, the point may be moot now. But for 20 some odd years, the Bowl Championship Series might have been the most reviled entity in U.S. sports. Fans bemoaned its esoteric computer formulas and coaches derided its lack of fairness.

It was enough to get Congress involved when Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, presumably a fan of a Utes football program that had twice been shut out of the championship game following undefeated seasons, put the BCS under antitrust scrutiny in 2009. Even Obama promised to "throw [his] weight around a little bit" in support of a playoff, and it's possible Congressional interest pushed the sport faster in that direction.

Senators and Steroids

The nationwide pearl-clutching that followed steroid revelations in baseball reached the hallowed marble halls of Congress, leading to sometimes revelatory sometimes comical testimony from current and former players in a series of hearings. Whether those investigations led to any tangible change in the sport is debatable, but what is certain is that Congress doesn't like being lied to.

Federal prosecutors went hard after Roger Clemens in particular, who they claim perjured himself before Congress in 2008. But Clemens was found not guilty after two different trials.

Daily Fantasy, Regulatory Reality

Congress has yet to step in to regulate daily fantasy sports websites, while states have been split on whether the online contests constitute illegal gambling. And it's not clear whether they ever will.

The biggest players in the daily fantasy game sat on the bench during a recent round of hearings on Capitol Hill, and Congress' hands might be tied by a vague federal anti-gambling law that includes an exception for "fantasy or simulation sports game[s]." This may be a case where federal regulators decide to leave it up to the states to sort it out.

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