By: Chris Frates
A dogfighting quarterback, a gambling basketball referee, a steroid cloud hanging over the new home run record and the grisly murder-suicide of a professional wrestler.
With a summer full of sports scandals, it was only a matter of time until some chairman flexed his influence and called for a congressional investigation that will bring sports superstars, and the klieg lights that follow them, to town.
And for now, the target is wrestling.
Never mind that wrestling is not really a sport and that more people could probably pick quarterback Michael Vick than wrestling superstar The Great Khali out of a locker room lineup. Congress has announced it’s ready to rumble.
The revelations that steroids were found in the house where wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife, his son and then himself in June caught the attention of congressional investigators.
The House committees that looked into steroid use in professional baseball in 2005 have asked Benoit’s employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, for information about its drug-testing policies.
The WWE finds itself in the cross hairs of California Rep. Henry A. Waxman’s House Oversight Committee and Illinois Rep. Bobby L. Rush’s Energy and Commerce subcommittee, with Rush planning to hold a hearing this fall.
The developments are a reality smackdown for a company that sells comic book story lines to millions of fans each week. But the WWE has the advantage of studying baseball’s legislative film.
Aside from giving Waxman a reason to quote from “Field of Dreams,” Congress’ baseball investigation saw some of its biggest stars quizzed about steroid use and led to the stiffening of the sport’s testing policy and penalties, as well as to the launch of an ongoing independent inquiry headed by former Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine).
“Yeah, there’s a lot to be nervous about,” said Eleanor Hill, a veteran of congressional investigations.
The baseball steroid investigation marked a turning point for congressional sports probes, said Senate Associate Historian Donald Ritchie.
Before 2005, lawmakers didn’t examine players’ behavior. They let the leagues police that.
Congress had always followed the money, Ritchie said. For example, the Senate has investigated corruption, mafia ties, fight-fixing and payoffs in professional boxing.
Alleged steroid use among baseball players, and now wrestlers, shifted the debate from finance to public health.
Lawmakers are concerned that kids may begin to use steroids and other performance enhancing drugs because the ballplayers and wrestlers they idolize are thought to do so.
“Illegal steroid use in professional sports has gained plenty of attention, but the record suggests that the problem is most pervasive and deadly in pro wrestling, an unregulated form of entertainment that is watched on TV and in arenas by an estimated 20 million fans a week, including children,” Rush and Rep. Cliff Stearns (Fla.), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, wrote to WWE Chairman Vincent K. McMahon. (The panel also sent the letter, which requested drug testing information, to two lesser-known professional wrestling organizations.)
The lawmakers included a USA Today article that said wrestlers “are about 20 times more likely to die before 45 than are pro football players, another profession that’s exceptionally hard on the body.”
Hill, who was the staff director for the joint congressional intelligence committee that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, is a partner at King & Spalding and advises clients who find themselves under investigation. Her message is simple: Cooperate.
"The congressional oversight power is extremely powerful, very broad, and I don’t think people get very far trying to slow down or stonewall a committee,” she said. “It’s not something that can be easily dismissed.”
It’s a lesson the WWE says it has heeded. The company has responded to both committees’ requests and is treating the panels “with the utmost respect,” said WWE spokesman Gary Davis.
What the organization will do next is anybody’s guess, since the company would not discuss its strategy.
And it’s not just wrestling that has a case of lockjaw.
Major League Baseball also declined to discuss how it handled its investigation even though it got the congressional eyeball more than two years ago.
The more talkative Hill, who helped investigate the Iran-Contra scandal, suggested investigation targets should clean house at the first mention of a congressional inquiry.
While not exactly proactive, baseball eventually ordered an independent investigation into steroid use.
Mitchell, a former senate majority leader, began his inquiry in March 2006 and has not yet released the findings.
The report’s credibility will rest on how well the investigation is executed, Hill said.
Peter Roby, former director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, said such investigations show “sport is no different than any other part of our commerce or our society and needs to be … done honestly and ethically.”
Still, Roby said, it’s naive not to consider the possibility that politicians may be highlighting the topicto raise their profiles.
Special interests know that a high-profile issue can be their best shot at getting heard. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Vick’s guilty plea to dogfighting charges has animal rights groups pressing for tougher penalties, even if neither Rush’s nor Waxman’s panel is planning investigations into the practice among NFL players.
That could be due in part to football’s Washington presence. The National Football League, home to America’s most popular sport, spent $430,000 lobbying during the first six months of this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Baseball, no stranger to Washington, spent more than $540,000 during the same period. Its unique anti-trust exemption has kept the league wise to congressional power for the better part of a century.
The league’s chief lobbyist, Lucy Calautti, served as North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan’s chief of staff and is married to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
WWE, meanwhile, has spent nothing on lobbying during the first half of the year. But with a veritable congressional cage match likely approaching, the wrestling giant will probably spend some serious money in the coming months on lawyers and maybe even a lobbyist or two.