Dispatch February 2008

'Roid Rage

What the professional sports world doesn't get about Washington

I don’t know if Specter has a gold-framed portrait of himself hanging in a committee room somewhere (though I’ll bet he does), but he’s famous for screaming at his staff and publicly belittling them whenever the mood strikes. The impulse doesn’t limit itself to the help, who are not, in the grand scheme of things, all that important or recognizable, and who are paid to take it. Bagging a lion like Goodell, on the other hand, is a far greater prize, and Specter had expertly stalked his prey and set him up for the kill.

According to media reports, Specter wanted to know why Goodell had destroyed videotaped evidence of the Patriots allegedly cheating. You can imagine what Goodell, or whichever underling opens his mail, must have thought to himself upon receiving these missives: Isn’t that guy busy trying to end a war or something? On its merits, the notion that a senior senator would care about a minor sports scandal in which no money changed hands and no laws were broken is laughable, and was obviously treated as such by the NFL.

Wrong play. What Goodell and Clemens and Bud Selig and all the rest of the sports luminaries who have come before Congress don’t understand is that politicians view them in a way no one else does: as easy targets. To politicians, sports is the rare subject that holds practically no political risk, while the robust egos of celebrity athletes can be counted on to supply the public spectacle that official Washington craves. Sports is easy. It is bipartisan: every red-blooded American roots for the hometown team. It lets elitist multimillionaires signal their earthy, blue-collar solidarity with regular folk. It is a way to stoke passionate, populist feeling without ever needing to worry about angering the other side, because when you rise to defend the home team, there is no other side. Only a total fool can flub it, as Mitt Romney demonstrated by fortifying a healthy reputation for phoniness with his claim that he was thrilled when the Boston Red Sox broke “an 87-year” World Series drought in 2004, when every sentient Bay Stater knew it had been 86 years.

Specter’s no fool when it comes to sports. He has long made a point of advertising his love for the hometown Eagles, who, some junior staffer might have whispered to him, lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl several years ago. The decision to humiliate Goodell, who (unlike the New York Giants) had only mildly humiliated the Patriots, was what the sports and political worlds alike would recognize as “a slam dunk.”

But why, you might ask, do congressmen feel compelled to subject athletes to such humiliation? Because it is the law of the jungle. Like silverback gorillas, senators and congressmen as well as cabinet secretaries and chiefs of staff all compete for primacy by attacking the alpha males—individually when they’re strong enough (Specter), in packs when they’re not (the oversight committee). Hall-of-Fame pitchers aren’t the only ones hunted. Even the most senior statesmen are not immune.

Specter himself is an edifying example. Shortly after George Bush’s reelection, he was forced to endure the most public humiliation I can ever recall a political party inflicting on one of its own members. Specter had finally achieved the seniority to expect the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, a prize even greater than an oil painting. Yet, coursing with partisan fervor from their victory, Karl Rove and some Republican silverbacks decided to challenge the old bull in the Darwinian way of Washington: by declaring that Specter—a moderate in his politics if not in his temperament—was insufficiently conservative to deserve the gavel. When they threatened to hand it to someone else, Specter did what any senator who senses his chairmanship slipping away would: he groveled. For weeks on end, Specter abased himself before any and every conservative, calling in chits, pleading openly, and offering embarrassing testimonials to the staunchness of his conservatism.

He survived because that is how the Washington game is played. It’s as brutal in its way as any professional sport, and it’s the reason, I’ve always suspected, for the theatrical courtesies and archaic manners that otherwise obtain. You begin to understand why congressmen slaver at the sight of a perceived weakling seated in the witness chair. Of course, pro athletes never think of themselves that way, which is why they make such easy prey. Clemens spent Monday on the Hill, signing autographs and glad-handing many of those same congressmen. When he looked across the hearing table yesterday, I’ll bet he saw a bunch of out-of-shape old men in bad suits. He didn’t realize, because athletes and commissioners never do, that he’d just stepped onto the playing field.

Presented by

Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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