Why is Congress always meddling with sports?

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.

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.

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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.

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