Numerous and deserved tributes have been paid to Senator John McCain, who passed away on Saturday after a 13-month battle with brain cancer. The New York Times was one of many outlets to note that he was “a last lion of the Senate.”
People like McCain don’t walk into the Senate and automatically receive that distinction. They work for decades, building relationships, and taking positions that may not be popular at the time and they earn that honor by building consensus, swaying public opinion, and passing legislation.
McCain’s influence can be seen in almost every facet of our world, including sports. Here are five contributions he made. Some are fully realized and some are not, but the sports world is better off because of them.
5. Arizona sports
When media outlets publish their rankings of the worst sports cities in the U.S., Phoenix is usually in the top two or three because of lackadaisical fan bases. That was not the fault of McCain, who was a fixture at Arizona sporting events and a champion of the state’s franchises and universities. When the Phoenix Coyotes filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and went four years without an owner, McCain advocated and led discussions to keep the team in the Valley of the Sun. Today, the renamed Arizona Coyotes still reside in Glendale thanks in part to his work.
4. Brain trauma
In April 2016, Senator McCain attended a news conference with Larry Holmes and Herschel Walker outlining a program at the Cleveland Clinic studying brain trauma in fighters. Since the study was supported by the boxing and mixed-martial arts communities, McCain sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, saying pro football should follow suit. “I’m going to be urging the NFL to be joining this Cleveland Clinic program so that we can prevent the tragic outcomes of too many blows,” he said at the news conference. “We already know it’s happening, it's already been covered enormously by the media.” To date, the NFL has not supported the study.
3. Performance-enhancing substances
The night before the 2008 presidential election, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both appeared on Monday Night Football. When asked about the one change each of them would like to see in sports, Obama made a call for a college football playoff. McCain took his answer a little more seriously saying, he’d “take significant action to prevent the spread and use of performance-enhancing substances.” He went on to say, “It's not good for the athletes. It's not good for the sports. It's very bad for those that don't do it, and I think it can attack the very integrity of all sports going all the way down to high school.” This had been an area McCain had been vocal in since it became a crisis in the early 2000s. Fed up with the widespread use, he said in December 2004 that the leagues had until January to set minimum standards for testing or he would introduce legislation. In January 2005, Major League Baseball announced a new agreement that set tougher penalties for using performance-enhancing drugs.
2. Jack Johnson’s pardon
In 2004, Senator McCain and Representative Peter King issued a concurrent resolution calling for the posthumous pardon of heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson for his wrongful conviction of the Mann Act, which prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” In 1913, Johnson was convicted for literally just traveling with one of his girlfriends, Belle Schreiber, a former prostitute. He left the country and fought overseas before losing his title to Jess Willard in Havana in 1915. Johnson returned to the United States in 1920 and served a 10-month sentence in Leavenworth. McCain and King introduced these resolutions in every Congress, but both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not take action. Finally in May of this year, President Donald Trump issued the pardon, thanks in no small part to McCain’s work in raising awareness and support.
1. Boxing reform
Regulating the sweet science has been a topic in Congress ever since Estes Kefauver grilled Blinky Palermo and Frank Carbo in the 1960s. McCain managed to make actual progress on the issue. In 1996, his “Professional Boxing Safety Act” became public law and mandated match supervision by state athletic commissions, medically testing fighter before bouts, and health insurance coverage for fighters. In 2000, the “Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act” passed, requiring a separation from managers and promoters to protect fighters from being exploited and prevent corruption. His efforts to create a federal boxing commission ended with a failed vote in the House of Representatives in 2005. Either boxing will truly reform or it will be fully eclipsed by UFC and mixed martial arts, which McCain often called “human cockfighting.” If it does the former, McCain will deserve a lot of the credit for forging the path.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo by Arizona Cardinals, courtesy of www.azcardinals.com)