For the NFL, the best defense is a good offense
With the Super Bowl this Sunday in New Orleans, the pro football faithful across the country (and around the world) are readying themselves for the big game.
While much of the pre-game chatter centers on the narrative of the dueling Harbaugh brothers and Ray Lewis' impending retirement, Congress is preparing for future hearings to question National Football League (NFL) players on human growth hormone (HGH) use. With questions about and increased congressional interest in player safety, drug testing, and labor issues, the NFL knows lobbying and campaign donations certainly can't hurt.
On Tuesday, my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), released a new report, Defensive Game, which examines patterns in lobbying spending by both the NFL and the National Football League Players' Association (NFLPA). As public pressure and congressional scrutiny have increased, the NFL has been shoring up its offense (and defense) by beefing up its lobbying team and creating its first political action committee (PAC).
As CREW's research shows, both the NFL and the NFLPA have stepped up their lobbying efforts over the past decade. In 2012, the NFL spent $1.14 million on federal lobbying — a five-fold increase of what it spent a decade ago. The league's lobbying spending hit a high in 2011, while it dealt with high-profile and contentious labor negotiations, resulting in a four-month lockout of players. The NFLPA, which traditionally spends far less on lobbying, tripled its spending from $40,000 in 2002 to $120,000 in 2012.
Unlike the NFLPA, the league also formed its own PAC to donate to federal candidates, the aptly titled Gridiron-PAC. Founded in 2008, Gridiron-PAC did not start making political donations until the 2010 election cycle, when labor negotiations with the NFLPA grew tense and Congress began to look at the league's handling of concussions and head trauma. In this past election cycle, the PAC contributed $838,000 to federal candidates, PACs, and party committees — up 26 percent from the 2010 cycle.
But what does the NFL get in return for its money?
Gridiron-PAC has thus far donated to a mostly bipartisan group of congressional leadership and key members of House committees with jurisdiction over NFL issues, including the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The largest individual recipient of donations from the PAC is Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the committee, who received $30,000 over the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.
This past July, Rep. Upton and three other leaders from the committee wrote to the NFL and the NFLPA, expressing concern about whether a comprehensive testing program for HGH would be in place prior to the start of the 2012 season. Three weeks before he sent the letter, Rep. Upton's campaign committee accepted a $5,000 contribution from the PAC. Two other members who signed the letter, former Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), also received contributions at the same time, for $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. The letter harshly criticized the NFLPA for questioning the effectiveness of HGH testing.
In addition to drug testing, the issue of player safety is certain to continue to be on the lobbying agenda for the NFL and the NFLPA for the foreseeable future. In recent years, new revelations about the long-term impact of playing football and the cumulative consequences of concussions have been called an "existential threat" to the sport. The suicides of former players, including 12-time all-star Junior Seau, have stunned the football world and spurred discussion that this could lead to "the end of football." After his death, it was discovered Mr. Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head injuries. More than 4,000 former players are now suing the league in concussion-related lawsuits. NFL teams fear these lawsuits could end up costing them millions of dollars a year.
Nevertheless, the NFL is estimated to bring in about $9 billion in revenue each year. There's nothing Congress likes more than attention and campaign cash, and the NFL offers both. It's clear the league isn't standing on the sidelines anymore; when it comes to the Washington game, the NFL is now playing for keeps.