If you’re a Detroit Red Wings fan, chances are high that you joined me in hurling obscenities at referee Brad Watson at the end of last week’s 2-1 playoff loss to the Anaheim Ducks. With just 1:04 remaining in the third period, Wings forward Marian Hossa scored an apparent goal after the puck trickled out from under Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller. Watson, however, lost sight of the puck under Hiller’s pads and blew the play dead an instant before Hossa knocked it into the net. The goal, which would have likely sent the game into overtime, was disallowed.
The call was the proverbial last straw in a game ridden with rotten officiating that hurt both teams. It seemed like every penalty was a make-up call for the last boneheaded ruling. It wasn’t just frustrating to watch — it was maddening. After cursing Watson, Hiller, God and National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman, a friend turned to me and said, “This is ridiculous! Somebody should really step in and fix this.”
Some might think that this “somebody” should be the federal government. In a time when many people seem to think President Barack Obama has the magical power to simultaneously eliminate the national debt, return failing companies to profitability, punish those evil rich people and make everyone love America again, one might be tempted to look to the federal government for help with sports oversight.
In fact, there is evidence that a new trend in government intervention in sports could be forthcoming. In an interview with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes,” Obama — then President-elect — claimed that he would “throw (his) weight around a little bit,” in changing the college football postseason into a playoff. A playoff system would be great for the game and its fans, but the fact that Obama believes the inner workings of the NCAA are the federal government’s responsibility is troubling.
Currently, government involvement in sports is minimal in the United States. With only a few exceptions, including public stadium funding and Senator George Mitchell’s investigatory committee on steroids in Major League Baseball, government and sports have remained separated. While many nations, like Russia and Canada, appoint sports czars, sporting culture in the U.S. remains quite independent. Even the U.S. Olympic committee receives little in the way of federal funding. Like many non-profit charities, it survives by soliciting private donations.
But organizations like the NHL are private franchises that have an impact on local economies. One blown call in the playoffs can cost a team and its city millions of dollars. In the case of the Red Wings this year, it means that Detroit’s dismal economy will suffer as the Wings’ time in the playoffs comes to an end. Detroit could have benefited from having those 20,000 seats in Joe Louis Arena filled during playoff games that stretch into June. The games also draw consumers to the city, and sports bars profit from continued coverage.
And the Obama administration has already shown willingness to assert itself in businesses that have accepted government funding, as Obama demonstrated when he asked Rick Wagoner, former chairman and CEO of General Motor, to step down. If the government thinks the survival of Detroit’s auto companies is important enough to spend billions in an attempt to save them, direct interference in professional sports isn’t an impossible extension.
America’s sports leagues aren’t perfect, but they’ve been able to endure years of scandals, strikes and recessions to become some of the most profitable sports organizations in the world. Government intervention — whether it’s in the form of overseeing referee calls, abolishing the Bowl Championship Series or establishing a sports czar — would only hinder sports leagues’ responsibility to control its own organization. And it’s downright scary to think about possible future intervention that might be justified with the credo that the government is simply “doing what’s in everyone’s best interests.”
Pushing the government to play a larger role in America’s fitness and health is Sport in Society, a research group from the Northern University in Boston. In a proposal released last week, the group urged Obama to appoint a Secretary of Sport and Culture to his Cabinet. While the Sport in Society’s goal is to promote youth sport programs and cultivate the positive influence of sports, it’s easy to foresee what this new government program could become. At best, it would be yet another government agency mired in bureaucracy. At worst, it would be a developing avenue by which the government could seize a controlling role in major sport organizations.
Our pocketbooks and patience are already stretched thin. The last thing we need is more government interference. The best weapons to ensure that leagues are doing their best to be fair and entertaining are still the remote control and the power to complain, not the oversight of the federal government.
Now, please excuse me as I write Brad Watson some vitriolic hate mail.
Chris Koslowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org