Can John McCain save sports?

PHOENIX -- No politician enjoys battling bad guys like John McCain, and these days, the senior senator from Arizona wants to save sports from its own worst elements.

McCain, who was reelected to a fourth term in November, chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which basically means he can stick his thumb into any activity in America where dollars change hands. He is a genuine sports nut who says the best perk he gets is the chance to buy tickets to otherwise sold-out boxing matches. And he is a maverick, by temperament if not party label, who enjoys attacking various corporate interests and standing up for underdogs.

In short, McCain styles himself a cross between Jefferson Smith and Ted
Williams. He has an ambitious sports agenda, and he's got the power and tenacity to push it.

And with the sordid tale of BALCO and its founder, Victor Conte Jr., erupting across headlines on daily basis, McCain has something more, too: a scandal that's throwing light on the sports underworld, and that just might swing public opinion behind the efforts of McCain and his fellow reformers.

McCain is fighting on at least four fronts to clean up sports. Closest to his heart are his efforts to fight corruption and improve the plight of beaten-down fighters in boxing. For years, he tried an incremental approach: he was a key sponsor of a 1996 law requiring medical care for boxers and a 2000 law banning conflicts of interest among managers and promoters. But these efforts have been almost completely unenforced by state agencies, and now McCain is proposing a national commission to straighten out the sweet science.

"I'll push for boxing reform until it passes," McCain told ESPN.com in an interview at his Phoenix office. "The thing that gets me so involved is the exploitation of the boxers who, with rare exception, come from the lowest rung on our economic ladder, are least educated and are left many times after some years in the sport mentally impaired and financially broke."

But it's BALCO, specifically what McCain calls baseball's "meaningless enforcement" of its rules about performance-enhancing drugs, where McCain has been making the biggest news recently.

"I don't care about Mr. Bonds or Mr. Sheffield or anybody else," McCain barked to reporters after Conte went public with his story in ESPN the
Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle reported grand jury testimony given by Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield. "What I care about are high school athletes who are tempted to use steroids because they think that's the only way they can make it in the major leagues."

Before the players' testimony leaked, McCain, whose committee has the records of MLB's drug tests, had predicted to ESPN.com that there would be "more to come … more in the BALCO situation." Now he blames owners as well as players for the mess: "[Baseball commissioner Bud] Selig and the owners are getting a free ride here," he says. "They've said, 'Well, it was the final item in our negotiations [for the last labor deal], so we just sort of let it go.' Well, wasn't it their obligation to press for a better kind of enforcement on steroids than they got?"

McCain has given both sides until January to revamp their collective-bargaining agreement. Otherwise, he says, he will introduce federal legislation to toughen drug testing in baseball.

It hasn't gained much notoriety yet, but along with his claims to being a steroid mastermind for Olympic athletes, Conte has also charged that a huge majority of baseball players are ingesting stimulants. And McCain is a key member of a group of members of Congress who are trying to regulate nutritional supplements, some of which are chemically similar to and have effects like the now-banned ephedra. (Each pill of Metabolife's flagship "Ultra" product, for example, contains 54 milligrams of caffeine and 6.6 milligrams of synephrine, a close relative of ephedra.)

McCain voted for DSHEA, the 1994 law that gutted the federal government's authority to oversee supplements -- and that triggered the explosive growth in the sale of everything from horny goat weed to bee feces. But he says: "I'm not satisfied at all. The bill I voted for, frankly, I was not as aware of it as I should have been."

Now McCain would like to force makers of supplements or any substance that affects the human body to test their products before bringing them to market. Given that the supplement manufacturers have huge political influence in Congress -- they can mobilize millions of loyal customers, and they have a powerful patron in Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah -- that's not likely to happen. But since the high-profile deaths of Steve Bechler, Korey Stringer and Rashidi Wheeler, all of whom used supplements, the industry hasn't been able to fend off all further regulation of performance-enhancing stimulants. In the coming year, reformers, led by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and McCain, will probably be able to require manufacturers to report negative side effects to the government.

"It's incomprehensible to me that we would not have a provision that would require them to report adverse reactions," says McCain.

Finally, McCain wants to eliminate what he sees as the most troubling aspects of legalized gambling in the United States. He has led the fight to ban gambling on college sports, a battle the Nevada casinos have won (so far), in part by suggesting that he would make Super Bowl and NCAA pools illegal. (He wouldn't, since they are zero-sum games, not for-profit enterprises.) And McCain would ban Internet gambling -- not because it's addictive, but because players typically have no way of knowing whether they are in fair games.

All this crusading has made McCain a passel of enemies, and several of the men who would like to derail his plans have also gained power since the November elections. For example, Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat from the gambling state of Nevada, has become the Senate Minority Leader. Reid's opposition stalled boxing reform for a full year in the Senate, though he's now on board with McCain's bill. But Reid also has worked assiduously to keep gambling on college athletics alive.

Then there's Don King, who hustled all fall for George W. Bush's reelection campaign, even taping an anti-John Kerry ad, and who surely wants to use whatever newfound influence he has to sway the Bush administration against boxing reform. McCain laughs off King's alliance with the GOP and predicts that if his national-commission bill passes the House of Representatives, President Bush will sign it.

And Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and Bud Selig ally, now chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Sensenbrenner came to Selig's aid during the commissioner's embarrassing testimony on contraction two years ago, and he's not likely to give a green light to any legislation that interferes with baseball's labor deal unless Selig approves it.

But powerful animosity is nothing new for McCain, who outside of sports has taken on tobacco companies, HMOs and big-money campaign contributors. The more villainous the opponent he draws, the more he seems to enjoy the fight. And just as important, McCain has come to see his role as skirmishing as long as it takes for public opinion to come around his way. About banning gambling on college sports, he says: "When the most respected coaches in college athletics come to me and say, 'We want this banned because we think it can have a terrible effect on young people, then I'm going to react. But is it going to pass? No."

For McCain, though, that's not the bottom line. "I'll give you a little straight talk," he says. "There's going to have to be another scandal, and there probably will be."

That's McCain: waiting for the next, inevitable burst of bad news to come along, to present an opportunity not only to excoriate wrongdoers but to corral the powerful into doing the right thing.

To take another step toward saving sports.

Tune in January 5, when Congress comes back into session, and watch him start with baseball.