President Obama should consider creating a sports czar

Evan Weiner Contributor
Font Size:

Should President Barack Obama seriously consider adding a new Cabinet post, creating a federal director of sports in the United States? Consider the sports initiatives that Obama has been involved with during his 13 months as President and a case can be made that sports in the United States deserves specific attention. Obama has suggested that college football have a championship game and there have been reports that his administration is thinking about investigating the Bowl Championship Series.

Obama went to Copenhagen last October under somebody’s pressure to lobby the International Olympic Committee to select Chicago as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The International Olympic Committee expected Obama to genuflect in front of them as in past years Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin begged the IOC for Olympic Games in 2005 and 2007. Blair got the 2012 Summer Olympics for London and Putin got on his hands and knees and secured the 2014 Winter Games for the Russian Black Sea resort in Sochi.

American Presidents have been involved in sports issues for more than a century. Theodore Roosevelt saved college football in 1905. Franklin Roosevelt decided baseball was too important for the country’s morale during World War II and kept the game going. Dwight Eisenhower tried to put a thaw in the Cold War in the 1950s by sending Americans to compete in the Soviet Union in sports events. John Kennedy signed the 1961 Sports Broadcast Act. Lyndon Johnson signed the NFL-AFL merger legislation that allowed football to grow in 1966. Richard Nixon used ping-pong or table tennis matches to open the door to China in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in retaliation to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Bill Clinton was asked in 1995 to mediate the Major League Baseball Players Strike and George W. Bush included an anti-steroids statement in the State of the Union Address in 2004.

The United States Supreme Court granted the National and American Leagues of Baseball an antitrust exemption in 1922 because the court felt baseball was a game not a business. Because of that ruling, the Oakland A’s ownership cannot relocate their team to San Jose because San Jose, California is within San Francisco Giants territory and the New York City metropolitan area cannot go after a third Major League team as the New York Mets and New York Yankees control the New York territory.

Government is involved in every aspect of sports from stadium building to labor laws concerning collective bargaining that preclude 18-year olds from playing in the National Basketball Association.

The federal director of sports question was brought up by Osarose Isibor, a University of San Francisco Sports Business Management graduate student as part of an electronic blackboard discussion, which centered on Congressman Emanuel Cellar’s role in 1961, which gave the National Football League the right to sell the league’s 14 teams as a single entity to television networks.

Cellar, a Democrat from Brooklyn, N. Y., rammed legislation through the House in 1961 that ultimately became the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 and changed the sports landscape. The 14 National Football League owners, after much arm twisting by Commissioner Pete Rozelle, agreed that a single entity model would be better for the league and with that piece of legislation signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on September 30, 1961, the National Football League was able to use the legislation as leverage to get a then big money network TV contact with CBS in 1962 and get additional operating capital. The TV deal helped expand the league’s American footprint.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 is not the only piece of federal legislation that helped build the National Football League or other sports but it is fairly significant. Take a look at the relationship between the federal government and sports or rather let’s let the University of San Francisco student lay it out.

“Sports is a multi-billion dollar business that crosses municipal, state, and even country lines. The revenue generated from sport related activities is so large that there should be a government correspondent that deals specifically with this subject. The government has a cabinet position that deals solely with monopolies and anti-trust issues,” said the grad student. “The four major sports leagues (Major League Baseball, the NFL, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League) today do not compete in a perfectly competitive market nor are they monopolies. There is really no classification for the type of market that these leagues compete in. For this reason, I believe that within the monopoly and anti-trust department of the government, there should be a position that monitors/studies/analyzes the business of national sports, maybe called the Federal Department of Sports Related Activities. This department would be responsible for things such as improving competition, regulating the sports market, calculating the Sports Domestic Gross Product, etc. If the authority needs to be delegated further down to the states and even cities that host professional teams, then so be it.”

The United States government has provided antitrust exemptions for college sports, approved a merger between the National Football League and the American Football League in 1966, and has given a non-profit status to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) under the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX on June 23, 1972 and while the legislation was to guarantee women had a fair chance at being accepted into any college, the legislation has morphed into a sports issue with big time college sports programs having to make room for women and giving them scholarships sometimes at the expense of men’s sports programs.

The United States Government, with Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens playing an important role, took the power away from the Amateur Athletic Union in 1978 and the AAU’s fiefdom and created a national governing body for various sports organizations under the USOC banner.

Creating a federal cabinet position overseeing sports is not a novel idea. There are numerous countries across the globe that have a Ministry of Sport.

Russia, for example has a Ministry of Sport, Tourism and Youth Affairs, a “federal executive body with the functions of development and implementation of state policy and legal regulation in the field of physical culture, sports, tourism and youth politics.”

Sport Canada is part of the Department of Canadian Heritage and provides sports funding for Canadian athletes.

There is a lengthy list of countries with similar posts.

The United States government, along with state and city governments, is partners with sports, whether it is on the professional or college level. National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern freely admits that government is a sports partner.

According to Stern, there are three elements needed for sports teams to succeed. Government, cable TV and corporate support. Government has funded stadiums and arenas, provided tax breaks and incentives to build facilities and through the Cable TV Act of 1984 and the Tax Act of 1986 provided more revenues for sports owners. Without the Cable TV Act of 1984, ESPN might have folded, the tax act capped revenues that were generated inside a facility to pay off the debt of a publicly funded stadium or an arena at eight cents on a dollar. Neither New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan nor Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter could close the loophole that exists to this day. The 1986 Tax Act gives the lion’s share of revenues to sports owners even after stadium or arena leases are negotiated to give municipalities a slightly better deal for taxpayers.

The Super Bowl is designated as a special security event. The Bush Administration provided a great deal of security for the 2004 Athens Olympics. There were more American troops on the ground for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics than were in Afghanistan at the time.

Sports is a government partner although the fantasy is that sports is just a game and an entertainment forum. Given the wide scope of American government involvement in sports from the federal level to the local level and the billions of dollars invested in the sports industry, perhaps it is time that some thought is given to creating a sports cabinet post which doesn’t differ very much from other countries that have a Ministry of Sports position. Perhaps a sports czar will order a college football championship be played which will make everybody happy except some people in the college football industry who will lose their bowl fiefdoms.

Evan Weiner is a columnist, radio-TV commentator, author and lecturer on “the politics and business of sports.”