By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
July 18, 2014
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have a national, government-sponsored (at least to a degree) sports commission, sports ministry, or some other entity that plays a significant role in the development of the country’s sports policy.
Unlike most countries around the globe, sport policy development and implementation in the United States is almost solely the responsibility of the country’s sports power brokers. And these power brokers have a personal vested interest — too often ego-based and/or greed-based in nature.
The sports policies and operational decisions turned out by these autocratic power brokers usually reflect win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) mentalities and aren’t always in the best interests of participants, fans or the games themselves. Especially troublesome is that these trickle-down policies and mindsets negatively impact high school and youth sports.
As college professor and sports reformer Bruce Svare points out, “Too often, the policies that end up directly affecting young athletes are made by individuals who have competing agendas such as the winning of games or commercial interests.”
A National Sports Commission would be ideally positioned to develop a national sports policy, a national code of sports ethics, conduct research and analysis on contemporary sports issues, serve as an arbitrator and regulator in clearly defined areas, and be a clearinghouse for all sports stakeholders in the country.
“Without some type of national authority like a sports commission it will be very difficult to have the checks and balances needed to prevent greed from warping sport at its best,” says sports and culture writer Dave Zirin.
The extent of the Commission’s oversight role, from the youth level to the professional level, including the Olympic effort, would undoubtedly be a controversial topic. As such, a special committee, authorized by Congress, and comprised of sports leaders and stakeholders from all levels of sports would need to be created to establish the general roles, responsibilities, and parameters of the Commission.
The Commission would be government authorized but wouldn’t necessarily need to be solely a government-funded entity. It could form a variety of strategic alliances with private foundations to help with fundraising, and in carrying out its mission.
The alternative is the system we have today. No government agency is responsible for overseeing sports — at any level — in this country. In effect, a taxpayer-subsidized monopoly is our form of sports regulation.
In particular, our professional sports leagues have long operated as monopolies, free from the natural regulation of a competitive marketplace — and for the most part, free from any anti-trust concerns.
Historically, Congress has stayed far away from the world of sports, especially professional sports, other then granting various anti-trust exemptions.
The big-time college sports machine operates with little restraint under a non-profit tax-exempt umbrella given to universities and colleges in this country. This despite the highly commercialized nature of Division I football and basketball.
In today’s college sports scene, universities are jumping from one conference to the next, leaving behind long-time affiliations and rivalries in the quest for more dollars. As a result, fans lose because long-standing traditions and rivalries are broken up. Smaller Division I-A conferences are left to struggle to survive. And college sports as a whole is the loser when a group of schools pulls away from peers based purely on greed. Meanwhile, Congress and the Department of Justice have seen fit to continue to allow the five power conferences in the NCAA to operate as a cartel.
The concept of a National Sports Commission has drawn support from both the left and right side of the political spectrum. Conservative Michael Novak has called for a “semipublic, partly governmental and partly private” National Sports Commission with “clearly specified powers of regulation, arbitration, research, and supervision” in the sports realm. Novak proposes a 21-person governing board made up of various sports stakeholders.
Novak’s argument for a National Sports Commission is based on what he sees as the unique role of sports as a public interest:
“The positive justification for such a commission is the critical role of sports in the imagination and spirit of the nation,” says Novak.
“The negative justification is the string of scandals, corrupting practices, and serious grievances now afflicting the disordered and haphazard institutions of sports. Insofar as sports are public services, they have claimed special legal treatment. The logical extension of this conception is special legal oversight. The public interest is substantially involved …. Once established by the Congress, such a Commission could be formed by the legitimate election of representatives from the participating categories. This governing board could then choose an executive director for an appropriate term of office.”
Svare, the former director of the National Institute for Sports Reform, believes the formation of a National Sports Commission is critical, especially for the lower levels of sport in this country.
“The establishment of a National Sports Commission is a must if we are to make any headway in our desire to reform sports to benefit all of our athletes and all of our citizens,” says Svare.
Novak’s vision of a National Sports Commission focuses primarily on professional sports while Svare’s vision of a National Sports Commission considers amateur sports for the most part. However, there’s no reason that a National Sports Commission couldn’t be comprehensive in nature, addressing pro and amateur sports to varying degrees. This is especially true when it comes to the development of a national sports policy, which ideally would address multiple levels of sport and a variety of sports issues in this country.
For example, an important role for the Commission undoubtedly would be developing policies and objectives around the participation model: sports for all citizens, including the promotion of the health and fitness benefits of lifetime participation in both team and individual sports.
Significant sports reform in this country, given the plethora of recurring scandals and problems, will be extremely difficult without a dramatic change in how this country’s overarching sports policy is developed. A National Sports Commission, made up of commissioners representing all sports stakeholders, would be a positive step forward.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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