NFL hires chief Republican lobbyist

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The National Football League is hiring Nicole Gustafson, a senior aide to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), as its chief Republican lobbyist, The Hill has learned.

The league has long been in the market for a GOP guru to help it navigate public policy matters following November's midterms, which left the party controlling both houses of Congress.

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The NFL will announce her hiring on Friday, the league confirmed to The Hill.

Gustafson, who also worked for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), will begin next month as the vice president for public policy and government affairs in the NFL’s Washington office, a newly created position. 

“Anyone who knows me knows that my passion for politics is only trumped by my love of football. I’m so excited to merge the two in this new opportunity with the NFL, and to be able to work with an amazing team on a diverse set of issues,” she told The Hill in an emailed statement. 

“It is bittersweet to be leaving such a great team here, but I look forward to continuing to work with them and all my Hill friends in this new capacity,” she added.

The NFL says Gustafson will “help develop the league's public policy and legislative initiatives and work with NFL teams on local and state issues.”

She is not subject to a “cooling off” period — triggered by a certain salary level — before she can officially register to lobby her former colleagues.

The NFL has been beefing up its K Street team as it faces tough questions from lawmakers about an array of issues, including head injuries and player safety, the league's tax status, broadcasting rights and the use of performance enhancing drugs.

The NFL has spent about $10.12 million lobbying since 2007, when it began to ramp up its K Street efforts, and shelled out $1.22 million in 2014 alone.

Gustafson will work under the NFL’s top lobbyist, Cynthia Hogan, who came on last September while the organization faced tough criticism for its handling of a domestic violence incident. 

Hogan is a former White House counsel for President Obama. While serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee, she helped then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) write the Violence Against Women Act.

The NFL has run a savvy political operation, despite lacking a Washington head for some time before Hogan came on board. It has faced hurdles in making key public policy hires because of what some say are low salary offers.

Scalise hired Gustafson as a legislative counsel in July after she had spent five years in Cantor’s office. In September, he announced that she would lead the whip office’s “conservative coalitions outreach” to partner with conservative organizations on policy issues. 

She has worked on policy issues for Scalise that fall under the jurisdiction of several House committees, including Judiciary, Oversight and Intelligence.

Prior to that, she worked as a policy director for the Senate Republican Conference vice chairman from 2007 to 2009 under Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), and as a counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), among other jobs on Capitol Hill.

"Nicole has been an invaluable asset to the Whip operation and Team Scalise since Day One. Her institutional knowledge, political acumen, and compassion for the American spirit — made her an ideal choice as coalitions director and counsel,” wrote Scalise in an emailed statement to The Hill. 

“While we will miss her on Capitol Hill, I am happy that she will be taking a leadership role with the NFL,” continued the Louisiana congressman. “The only consolation to her departure is that maybe she can secure a Super Bowl berth for the New Orleans Saints. Whodat!"

While having a bipartisan public policy team is important for any lobby shop, Republicans have recently raised questions about the league’s tax-exempt status.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in January that he wanted NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and leaders in other sports, to come to Capitol Hill and explain the need for their nonprofit status.

“Let them try to justify why we should let them off,” he said on Fox News's “On the Record with Greta Van Susteran.”

The NFL says that every dollar in income the league earns — from tickets and merchandise to sponsorships and television rights fees — is taxed. However, the NFL League Office, its administrative arm, is not subject to taxes.

Chaffetz reintroduced legislation earlier this year that would take away tax-free status from the NFL and the National Hockey League.

“Professional sports organizations aren’t fooling anybody. Organizations like the NFL and NHL are for-profit businesses making millions of dollars each year,” Chaffetz said. “These are not charities nor are they traditional trade organizations. They are for-profit businesses and should be taxed as such.”

Now-retired House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) included provisions to roll back the tax breaks in his tax reform draft last year.

In 2009, the league also had a blowout with legislators who grilled it about player safety, including the suspected connection between sustaining multiple head injuries on the field and brain disorders that develop later in life.

The NFL has four active outside lobby firms on retainer: Capitol Counsel, Elmendorf | Ryan, Glover Park Group and John Dudinsky & Associates.