Issues find spot in Capitol Hill lineup

Angelos' appearance today in cable dispute illustrates new role Congress plays in debates

April 07, 2006|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

Washington -- Rather than sit on the sidelines, Washington Nationals fans who want to see more games on television did what many other citizens and sports organizations have done lately.

They took their issue to Congress, which has become not only a forum for tax policy and budgets, but also a place to air sports disputes related to such things as baseball broadcasts, steroid use and the future of college bowl games.

The result of the fans' complaints? Orioles owner Peter Angelos, Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy and other figures will appear at a House Government Reform Committee hearing today entitled, "Out at Home: Why Most Nats Fans Can't See Their Team on TV."

Fans, who often feel slighted in the big-money world of professional sports, should feel good about being included. One of today's scheduled witnesses is Nationals fan Ian Koski. At a recent news conference, Koski presented 250 signatures he had collected on a petition urging that games be more widely available.

"We need to flex our political muscle, stand up for ourselves and stop being bullied around," Koski said in a news release. "It's absurd that here in Washington, we can see almost as many Yankees games as Nationals games."

David Marin, the Government Reform panel's staff director, said committee chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, was listening.

"This clearly is not an urgent public health matter," Marin said. "But it is something he hears about everywhere he goes in his district and the surrounding region. It's a fan issue, a consumer issue."

Angelos will join a procession of sports figures who have made the trek to Capitol Hill recently.

In the past year, House or Senate panels have entertained current and former players; pro football, hockey and basketball commissioners; college bowl managers; jockeys, track stars and trainers.

While Congress has long intervened in the affairs of organized athletics, the parade of sports figures before legislators appears to have grown to unprecedented lengths.

"Sports are a huge part of American culture," Marin said. "It's inevitable, and good, that Congress contribute to the nation's sports-related dialogue every now and then. The trick is picking the when."

Some committees have encountered a backlash.

When the Government Reform Committee summoned then-Orioles Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, among other players, to a hearing on steroid use last year, it was accused in the media - at least initially - of grandstanding.

In some cases, lawmakers themselves have questioned whether it's too much of a stretch for Congress to constantly weigh in on sports matters.

That was the case when another House panel held a hearing four months ago on proposals for a college football playoff system. Rep. Adam Schiff tried to put the hearing into perspective.

"Today, with an ongoing war in Iraq, thousands of Katrina evacuees still in need of homes, millions of Americans without health insurance, the potential for an avian flu pandemic, soaring home heating costs and an $8.12 trillion debt, Congress held a hearing on the best way to pick a college football champion," Schiff said.

But despite questioning the hearing's value, Schiff couldn't help but become a player in the debate. A California Democrat, he represents Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl game. If a playoff system were adopted, he argued, it could undermine the Rose Bowl's significance and siphon money away from his district.

Schiff's concerns reveal a lot about why sports has such a grip on Congress, and vice versa.

It seems athletics have become so big and far-reaching that most everyone in Congress has an angle to play.

"You can't get away from the fact that sports is now considered a huge business," said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

The Nationals' TV dispute began when the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which holds the team's broadcast rights, was created in a deal between Angelos and Major League Baseball. Comcast offers its own sports network and has failed to reach agreement with MASN to pick up Nationals games.

Meanwhile, a day before the hearings, Comcast issued a proposal to baseball commissioner Bud Selig to resolve the situation.

Comcast asked Major League Baseball to rescind the deal that granted the Orioles rights to Nationals games through MASN. Instead, Comcast said, MLB should "enter into an alternative compensation arrangement as you deem appropriate."

As part of the deal that allowed the former Montreal Expos to move to Washington, the Orioles received a large percentage of the TV rights to the Nationals in order to compensate the Orioles for the presence of a new club in what had been exclusively their market.

In the event MLB and the Orioles agree to Comcast's suggestion, Comcast said it would carry the remaining Nationals cable games this season on Comcast SportsNet or another channel in exchange for paying the same rights fee being paid by MASN.

Comcast said it would carry MASN-produced games, pick up MLB telecasts or produce the games itself.

Todd Webster, spokesman for MASN, said: "This is an 11th-hour public relations stunt by a Philadelphia corporate bully that is desperately trying to maintain its monopolistic grip on regional sports programming. It is as unworkable as it is desperate."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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