The National Football League and its players could have a busy off-season on Capitol Hill once the clock runs out on this weekend’s Super Bowl extravaganza.
The scrutiny has picked up in recent days with threats of congressional hearings and a headline-grabbing remark from President Obama about injuries in the game.
The NFL is well prepared for whatever comes its way. The league has amassed a war chest to build alliances with lawmakers, and fields a team of lobbyists who know the Washington playbook.
Adolpho Birch III, a senior vice president at the NFL, said the league is expecting lawmakers to follow them off the field once Sunday’s contest is through.
“I do think they are going to be active this year and as we have said, we will be as cooperative and helpful as we can,” said Birch, who leads the NFL’s lobbying team.
Along with its own in-house lobbyists, the NFL has a roster of outside firms that includes blue-chip shops Covington & Burling, Elmendorf | Ryan, Gephardt Government Affairs, the Glover Park Group and John Dudinsky & Associates.
The league spent more than $1.1 million on lobbying last year, according to disclosure records.
The NFL is also active on the fundraising circuit, contributing more than $800,000 to candidates and committees during the 2012 campaign through Gridiron-PAC, a political action committee.
“Since the mid-2000s, we have made a concerted effort to increase our presence down there. The Gridiron PAC was just another step for us to talk about our issues,” Birch said.
Watchdog groups have taken notice.
“Like every other industry, if you have problems, you have to start coughing up campaign contributions and increase your lobbying. That's what the NFL is doing. It's no different. It's not special,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group that released a report this month on the NFL’s lobbying efforts.
Not to be outdone, the union for the players — the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) — has a contract with Washington’s top lobbying firm, Patton Boggs. The players spent $120,000 last year on lobbying.
But the NFL’s advocacy force will be put to the test as lawmakers continue to push the league to test for Human Growth Hormone (HGH), one of the most popular and notorious performance-enhancing drugs.
In a Jan. 28 letter to the union, the top lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee knocked the players for resisting testing and said the panel “intend[s] to pursue a fact-finding agenda to determine whether NFL players consider HGH a problem in the league.”
“We are disappointed with the NFLPA’s remarkable recalcitrance, which has prevented meaningful progress on the issue,” wrote Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Issa and Cummings have been pushing sports leagues to implement in-season testing for HGH, and first met with the NFL and the NFLPA in October 2011 to discuss the issue. Earlier this month, the two lawmakers praised Major League Baseball (MLB) for its agreement to test HGH.
Birch said the league is ready to do the testing, and George Atallah, a NFLPA spokesman, said the union would like to see testing similar to MLB’s, though it has yet to propose that move.
“We have been cooperative and transparent with them from their initial interest and we will continue to be cooperative,” Atallah said. “We have expressed to the league and to Congress that we need a level of independent peer-review and transparency about the science and we are not there yet.”
A lobbyist who has handled sports issues in Washington said football has taken a different approach in dealing with Congress than MLB, which was summoned to Capitol Hill for a series of embarrassing hearings with star players.
“Unlike in baseball, in football, both the league and the players' association aggressively sought congressional involvement,” said the lobbyist. “In retrospect, it looks like it has been a better strategy for the league because of bipartisan criticism of the players' association.”
How the league deals with players’ head concussions — already the subject of much litigation — is also on Congress’s radar.
The issue has reemerged after one of football’s greats was found to have had a concussion-related disease. Junior Seau, a retired Pro Bowl linebacker, committed suicide last year and was diagnosed afterwards with CTE — a degenerative brain disease common among people with repeated head injuries.
The players’ association has asked the House Oversight Committee to review Seau’s death.
“Certainly, we would want the committee to be aware of the players' commitment to long-term health and safety,” Atallah said.
The NFLPA has pressured the NFL to address head injuries, and set aside $100 million in its latest collective bargaining rights agreement for a Harvard University health and safety research study for football players. In September, the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for injury research.
Several big names in Washington have begun to focus on the human toll of the sport, including the president.
“If I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” Obama said in an interview with The New Republic.
Lawmakers such as Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallTom Udall eyes NM governor bid Court ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada Tensions rise over judicial nominees MORE (D-N.M.) and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) have sponsored legislation in the past to improve the safety of youth football helmets.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) twice called for hearings on sports’ head injuries during the last Congress. In a statement to The Hill, she said there have been improvements in brain injury guidelines at all levels of football since a series of House Judiciary Committee hearings.
“I’m hopeful that we can hold more hearings on this issue so that we can continue this important discussion on traumatic brain injuries in football,” Sanchez said.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Sen. Tom Udall has sponsored helmet-safety legislation. A previous version contained incorrect information.