Like a gaggle of smitten schoolgirls at an N’ Sync reunion concert, the US Congress swooned this past week in the presence of the National Football League. The NFL, ostensibly, came before Congress to testify about steroid prevention, but they would have had a tougher time if the House Government Reform Committee had offered them a hot towel and a back rub.
In stark contrast to the Congressional inquisition that scalded Major League Baseball, the NFL was received with a sycophancy to rival Waylon Smithers. Many Congressmen prefaced their remarks or questions by calling the NFL’s appearance a “breath of fresh air.” As Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays put it, “I kind of love you guys.”
The conventional wisdom is that the NFL was “rewarded” with easy treatment for its “vigorous” steroid enforcement while Major League Baseball This is hogwash.
If Congress wanted to put the NFL on the rack, there is ample smoke if not fire. In 1989, there were less than ten players who tipped the scales at over 300 pounds. Now there are 455. But since the league began testing 15 years ago, only 54 players have been suspended — none of them famous outside their immediate neighborhoods. This would be like bringing war crimes charges against the Bush family and only indicting Neil.
The real reason, in my humble opinion, that Congress was reduced to coquettish glances and blushing titters was because of what I am calling the Male Cheerleader Principle.
Today, to be a male football cheerleader is to live with the knowledge that people assume you are either Gay, have found an inventive way to meet coeds, or are a frustrated dancer (or any combination of the three). But male cheerleading has a tradition on elite campuses that precedes modern definitions. In the “old days” — sometimes referred to by Tom Delay as “the future” – campuses were lily white, women didn’t play sports, latent homosexuality was expressed through bizarre fraternity rituals, and being a male cheerleader was a sign of leadership, school spirit, and a desire to engage in the emotion of football without getting your ascot in a bunch. Both George W. Bush and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott cut their teeth as cheerleaders, and that mentality of uncritical support for football still pervades the halls of Congress, albeit with a twist. Now instead of going gaga for Biff the star quarterback, their adoration is reserved for money and power. When you cross-breed that with the National Football League, its unrivaled cultural prestige, and an ownership club more exclusive than a Papal conclave, this collective cat nip seemed to overwhelm the committee’s senses.
The NFL’s saccharine treatment proves only that these congressional hearings are, as Woody Allen once put it a generation ago, “a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham.” The league and union should be able create and implement their own drug policy without Big Brother getting in the mix. It’s also almost too ironic to see a Congress that over the last ten years has given us spiraling health care costs, the predominance of HMOS, and an senior citizen underclass who have to choose between prescription drugs and food, fulminate about the nation’s health.
There was one moment when the hearings made the transition from farce to tragedy. This was when Willie Stewart, head football coach at Anacostia Senior High School in Washington, D.C., testified about how one his former players had died two weeks ago of kidney failure, a condition the coach suspects was linked to steroid use. “His death was just a waste of a human life,” Stewart said through a veil of tears.
Willie Stewart has in recent years become a local symbol of heartache, having coached numerous players that have died by gunfire, substandard medical care, or a toxic combination of the two. But don’t expect Congress to hold hearings on life in South East DC. They want to obscure the fact that poverty is the true health hazard facing this country, not performance enchancing drugs.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.