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Original Issue


I distrust congressional involvement in sport on practical grounds: Whenever legislators get involved, progress seems to suffer. I distrust even more the subcommittee hearings that are held every now and again, because they consistently reveal to me how little Congress knows about what's going on. And that's depressing.

Unfortunately, such hearings have become commonplace on Capitol Hill and they all follow the same wretched format: A bill is pushed by a certain legislator, then various aides—working for the subcommittee—gather witnesses who are asked to prepare statements to be read before the hearing, presumably to help enlighten the subcommittee.

The main idea of all this paper work is to ferret out sins and sponsor meaningful change. I imagine this system could work if the panel members consistently did their homework and knew precisely what to ask the witnesses. But it has been my experience that they seldom do. Their questions are often naive, repetitious and bloated with rhetoric. They belabor the obvious. They intimidate weak witnesses. And they frequently do not give those testifying their full attention.

At the ill-advised hearings on the NCAA in 1978, and the recent consideration of Representative Ron Mottl's (D-Ohio) Sports Violence bill by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on criminal justice, both of which I attended, it seemed to me that the panel was almost always out in force for the star witnesses, who figured to get media attention. But when it came to the lesser lights, the dais looked as though it had been hit by a killer virus. Isn't it incumbent on Congressmen to listen once they have summoned their constituents to testify on a public issue?

The NCAA hearings were a predictable cacophony of confused testimony and did neither the Congress nor the NCAA much good. I would have gladly passed up the subsequent violence hearings last May 19 but I was asked to testify, and there is something about a call from Capitol Hill that makes a fellow want to contribute what he can.

The Sports Violence bill, HR 2263, in its original form, would have provided penalties—a fine of not more than $5,000, imprisonment of not more than a year, or both—for the use of "excessive physical force" in professional sports events. As it was written, the bill was ambiguous, hopelessly one-sided and posed more questions than it answered.

My own convictions on the issue have already been aired in this magazine (Aug. 14, 1978 et seq.). Brutal tactics led to an epidemic injury rate in football, and the ripple effect in other sports (pro hockey, pro basketball) has been well documented. Although I deplore governmental intrusions, my prepared statement said that any exposure "to some of the mindless acts of violence that have perverted the good name of sport" can only help effect "a greater self-examination of the true goals and values of those responsible for it"—meaning the administrators and coaches of the various teams and leagues, not the players. A key point.

I spent three evenings preparing my statement. I hoped to alert the subcommittee to the main issues: how all of sport is injured when those at the top, who set examples, set violent ones; how win-at-any-cost ethics encourage a climate for violence that filters down to the youngest athletes; how more is at stake than just the legal recourse available to an injured party.

My appearance was scheduled near the end of a session, so I was able to listen while others testified. It was late afternoon, and most of the subcommittee had vanished. Jim Korn, a defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings, was called. The subcommittee chairman, Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), took the lead in examining him. Conyers was able to wring from Korn the startling confession that pro hockey is a violent game. Conyers acted stunned, however, over Korn's further admission that pro teams hire "enforcers" to intimidate opponents. For what seemed like hours, Conyers conjured up images of good enforcers and bad enforcers and he proved that a 52-year-old U.S. Congressman is better with words than a 23-year-old hockey player.

Then Korn made a remark that the subcommittee should have hopped all over. Korn said he never got into fights at the amateur levels of hockey; he said he never even saw one in the Olympic Games. Why not? Because if you go outside the rules to hurt another player in the amateurs, he said, you get ejected—kicked out of the game—and maybe out of future games as well.

I tried to enlarge on Korn's point when I took the witness chair. I was not asked to read my 10-page statement; it was entered into the record by Conyers, and I assumed that the subcommittee had already examined it. So I pointed out that what Korn's testimony had done was to place the entire blame for the violence in professional sports on the players, when the problem is an orchestrated kind of violence that implicates the entire structure of a pro sport.

Mottl's bill would penalize only players, however. Not the coaches who encourage borderline (and over-the-line) techniques and intimidation; not the administrators and team owners who condone the acts and profit from them; not the game officials whose action, or inaction, can allow the bad behavior to escalate. All are just as guilty as the offending athlete. It is the climate of violence that must be dealt with, and HR 2263 is totally inadequate for that task. But Congress need not concern itself, I said, because the exorcists were already on the job. They are called lawyers and they are becoming more and more interested in cases of violence in sport. And they are not just singling out athletes. The lawyers represent clients who are suing coaches and schools, administrators and equipment manufacturers.

And what about television? Would Congress hold television responsible for capitalizing on the violence and for immortalizing it on instant replay?

During my questioning it became obvious to me that Conyers had not read my statement. Afterward, Assistant Counsel Ernest McIntosh told me that although Conyers hadn't had time to get to it before I testified, he certainly intended to read it as soon as he could.

Representative Mottl considered my objections and asked if I would support the bill if it were rewritten. He said he realized it was imperfect and would be amended. I said I didn't know, that I'd have to see the revision. But the more I think about it, the more I think Congress should just forget the whole thing.