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SEPTEMBER 17, 2007

Instant Replay

A throng of photographers hovered outside the door to the Russell hearing room, fighting for position to snap a shot of the famous witnesses as they entered to testify. Inside, wide-eyed interns crowded at the back of the packed room, while flustered staffers hurried to pass out copies of testimony to the mass of reporters huddled around the press table. Former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis darted around eagerly, repeating talking points to anyone who would listen. Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) materialized out of nowhere to express her indignation and demand action.

The impetus behind this Capitol Hill extravaganza was not any major public-policy issue, or even a juicy Washington scandal. No, this was Tuesday morning's Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on the NFL's pension and disability benefits system. If you're wondering where in Article I of the Constitution Congress is delegated the authority to oversee professional sports leagues, you're not alone. In fact, the one point of agreement among all the witnesses present at the hearing was that it shouldn't have happened. Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, standing out among the dark-suited crowd in a tan sport coat and purple tie, put it characteristically bluntly: "The Congress of this great country has much more important things to be doing than this. I'm very sorry it's come to this."

How did it come to this? The hearing featured a series of sad, Dickensian tales about ex-players with serious medical conditions who have fallen into financial ruin because the league's pensions and disability benefits are too stingy. This is a genuine problem the league and players' union need to address: the average life expectancy of players is just 55 years, more than two decades shorter than that of the public at large, and with annual revenues in excess of $7 billion, the league has plenty of money to take care of former players who suffer from chronic illnesses.

But plain old pain and suffering are not usually enough to move Congress to act--just ask the 47 million Americans who still lack health insurance. No, the more important cause of the hearing appeared to be that senators were thrilled to partake in one of the choicest benefits of their jobs: the power to create a spectacle. Over a half-dozen members of the upper chamber, including erstwhile tasering-bystander John Kerry, took the time to attend, castigating the league's bureaucracy and certifying their good-ol'-all-Americanness by proclaiming undying love for the sport.

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) reminisced about growing up during the glory years of the Vikings' famed Purple People Eaters defensive line, which her father, Jim, covered as a sportswriter. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who noted that she is a longtime Chiefs season-ticket holder, empathized with the injured players in the room: "I got a new knee this year and I'm limping all over the place, and I was just a cheerleader in high school, for gosh sakes!" Star-struck Cowboy fan Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) enthusiastically introduced former Dallas fullback Daryl Johnston by his nickname, "Moose."

Sadly, not all the senators were fortunate enough to be able to voice their support for their hometown team. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who chaired the hearing, made an eloquent plea on behalf of Americans in non-NFL states: "The NFL is an immensely popular league. Its teams, as we know, tend to be located in our nation's large metropolitan areas, so not all states get to share in the excitement. Certainly that's the case in my state."

Unfortunate as that may be, reveling in Fran Tarkenton nostalgia and lobbying for expansion to Fargo do not constitute compelling rationales for congressional investigations. Sensing this, senators got a bit defensive. "Most Americans would look at this today and say, 'Wow, why is Congress doing this?'" noted Kerry keenly. His justification: "The game is part of the fabric of American society, and ... it seems to me the league is dropping the ball here, no pun intended." Ah, yes, the long-lost "Fabric of American society" clause in the Constitution.

Would Congress actually take legislative action against the NFL? Almost certainly not. The one real source of leverage Congress has over the NFL is its antitrust exemption, which since 1961 has allowed the league to increase its revenue by negotiating television broadcast rights in an otherwise illegal fashion. Members of Congress unhappy with the league--most recently, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) last year, perhaps out of frustration after Donovan McNabb's season-ending knee injury--occasionally grumble about revoking the law. But no senators expressed any interest in pursuing that course of action.

The senators, for their part, maintain that their methods--fun, exciting, and guaranteed to land them on television though they appear to be--do, in fact, serve a serious purpose. "The baseball folks said we had no business holding hearings on steroids," said Dorgan. "But because of those hearings, we've seen a lot of action. It could be that public pressure is really what's needed here." Strangely enough, they may be right. Players' union chief Gene Upshaw (whose organization hired the high-priced, battle-tested Davis to defend its honor on Capitol Hill) and Commissioner Roger Goodell (who looked relieved to be discussing any subject not involving strip clubs, pit bulls, or videotape) pledged to improve the process and get ex-players the help they need. No doubt they'd prefer not to get hauled in front of Congress and lectured again. And if the only way to shame the league into acting happened to involve face-to-face meetings with Iron Mike, Moose Johnston, Gale Sayers, and a roomful of cameras--well, that's a price the no-nonsense, nothing-but-business Senate Commerce Committee was grudgingly willing to pay.

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