Never having met John McCain, my guess is the former Arizona senator, who died Saturday night, would find much of what has been said about him since his death, amusing, as if to say, geez, I wish you had loved me this much when I was still here on Earth.
But one of the under-reported parts of McCain’s legacy was his impact on sports.
The so-called maverick and engineer of the straight talk express didn’t hesitate to exert his influence on athletics. But unlike a lot of politicians who look like preening schmoes when they try to mix it up in sports, McCain was authentic in an athletic milieu.
Part of that was because McCain spent time as a boxer while he was an aspiring ensign at the Naval Academy in the 1950s. And though his Vietnam War injuries robbed him of the chance to pursue athletics more regularly, John McCain was clearly comfortable in his sports skin.
It was in boxing where McCain wielded his greatest power. He took it as one of his causes to protect the health and welfare of fighters as seen by the 1996 passage of his Professional Boxing Safety Act.
That bill directed that all matches have to be sanctioned by a state athletic commission, as well as mandating that boxers had to be physically tested before being cleared to fight.
The bill also insists that each fighter has health insurance and that there be medical personnel and an ambulance present at every fight.
Four years later, McCain shepherded through Congress an act named for Muhammad Ali, which protects fighters from being exploited by their managers.
Interestingly, McCain, who was staunchly conservative on the overwhelming bulk of issues, was downright progressive when it came to supporting boxers, noting that their sport was the only major one without a union.
McCain was less sanguine about Ultimate Fighting and mixed-martial arts, calling it quote human cockfighting unquote in 1997.
But McCain’s criticisms pushed the sport to clean up its excesses and UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta credited them and the senator for helping the sport to grow.
McCain’s most lasting sports impact may be in baseball. As the then chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain had supervisory influence over the game.
In the early 2000s, he forced executives of both MLB and its union to explain why rules governing steroid usage were so lax. When he found their answers wanting, McCain fired a shot across the bow in late 2004.
McCain said that unless baseball and its union enacted the same testing rules that applied to the minor leagues, he would introduce legislation that would impose minimum testing standards across all sports.
Lo and behold, the two sides took the hint and passed testing that may not be as strong as many would like, but might not have happened without McCain.
Make no mistake, John McCain’s influence in far more important matters than those of sports, is rightly being noted. But the maverick who will be laid to rest in Annapolis later this week knew that games and the people who play them, matter too.
And that’s how I see it for this week.