Today the House Energy and Commerce Committee brought five current and former players as well as Major League Commissioner Bud Selig to Washington today to appear in public hearings on the issue of steroids and baseball. Notably absent from today's proceedings were Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, who both testified in 2003 to a San Francisco grand jury investigating a steroid distribution ring.
The hearings didn't produce any real new evidence and failed to document the extent of the problem of steroids in baseball as well as other sports.
There is no question that baseball has a problem with steroids. However, what has not been made clear is whether this is simply an issue limited to a handful of players or a wider issue of abuse among many players. Although baseball has taken steps to institute a stronger stance towards steroid use it remains to be seen whether recent rule changes will have any effect.
What is most puzzling is why Congress would want to take up this issue at this time (apart from showing that they are concerned about drug use and want to show they are "doing something" about it)? The answer is baseball's antitrust exemption.
Baseball obtained a unique place among professional sports in 1922 when the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Federal Base Ball Club of Baltimore Inc. vs. National Baseball Clubs. The Baltimore club had alleged the National and American Leagues had conspired to run them out of business by buying up teams and players in the Federal League which at the time had been trying desperately to compete with the existing major leagues. The Court ruled that baseball did not constitute interstate commerce and as a result was not subject to federal antitrust regulation.
By dealing with the steroid issue in public hearings, it gives Congress leverage to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption and as a result insert themselves into yet another aspect of life. As long as baseball retains their antitrust exemption they are essentially free to conduct their business as they choose without too much interference from federal regulators. Although Congress has taken up the issue of repealing the exemption several times before they have never been able to do anything about it. Part of the issue is that it's not something the average citizen gets fired up about and so it is difficult for Congress to generate a whole lot of public support for such a measure.
The issue of steroids in baseball is a serious one and there is still much to be done about it. However, Congress getting into the middle of this issue is not a solution. The only way baseball will get serious about this issue is if they realize neglecting it will hit them where it really hurts: their wallet. When baseball fans can no longer trust in the integrity of the games being played, they'll stop coming.