Football Groups Using Lobbyists to Score on Capitol Hill

Monday, 06 Feb 2012 02:34 PM

By Dan Weil

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The Super Bowl may be over for another year, but the Lobby Bowl rages on. Congress has addressed numerous football issues over the last year, and the party continues, Politico reports.

The issues include concussions, gambling, drug testing, broadcasting rights, labor rules, and even a possible college playoff system. This activity has resulted in record spending on lobbying by major football interest groups, according to a Politico analysis of federal records.

The National Football League (NFL) shelled out $1.62 million on federal lobbying last year, a record high that represents more than four times what it spent just five years ago. College football’s Bowl Championship Series (BCS), put a record $350,000 into lobbying in 2011. The NFL Players Association, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the Sports Fans Coalition also spent historically high levels of money on lobbying.

“Given all the issues in play, Congress will probably be more involved in football from the NFL down,” freshman Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., who played 14 seasons in the NFL, primarily with the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles, before retiring in 2009, told Politico.

“Especially on the concussion issue, I’d expect that there will be interest in keeping that in the forefront of Congress.”

Congress held several hearings last year about the high risk of concussions faced by football players. And several congressmen introduced bills to protect youngsters.

It’s no wonder, then, that football helmet-maker Riddell, which never lobbied the federal government before 2010, doled out a total of $420,000 to three major lobbying firms in 2011.

The NFL is continuing negotiations with Congress over concussions, a league official told Politico. Last year, the NFL’s lobbyists counseled Congress on a wide range of topics, including Internet gambling, performance-enhancing drugs and drug testing, the NFL Network, television broadcast policies, and the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. The last one represented a league blitz against ending a ban on airplanes flying near stadiums while games are being played.

“Given the popularity of the NFL, it’s probably not surprising that there’s increased interest in the national pastime from Congress,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s vice president for government affairs and public policy, told Politico. “It was incumbent on us as the league to keep Congress informed on these issues, and it’ll always be incumbent on us to explain our policy positions to Congress.”

Given that the national pastime is baseball rather than football, perhaps Miller is being a bit presumptuous. But given that football’s popularity now far outstrips baseball’s, perhaps, he’s not.

On the college level, several members of Congress were quite eager last year to see a playoff system replace the current Bowl Championship Series to determine a national collegiate champion.

Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., created the Congressional Collegiate Sports Caucus to research that issue. Barton previously sponsored a bill to forbid the BCS from calling its title game the college football championship unless a playoff system precedes it.

The two congressmen aren’t alone in their quest. Former Rep. Toby Moffett, D-Conn., who now runs The Moffett Group lobbying group, launched the “Want a Playoff Now” campaign in December to spark opposition to the BCS. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Max Baucus, D-Mont., have complained that the BCS discriminates against schools in their states.

Your view on whether this issue is worth Congress’ time probably depends on your view of Congress. If you respect Congress, you might think it’s indeed wasting precious time on trivial matters. If you don’t respect Congress, you might be glad that it’s wasting time on trivial matters, so that it can’t mess up more important issues.

In any case, Cohen defends Congress’ involvement. “Americans care about sports, and they care about fairness,” he said. “If something like this isn’t fair, it is the prerogative of Congress, and its job, to address it and fashion remedies.” It would be interesting to see his Constitutional rationale for that.

In any case, you can probably understand now why the BCS spent $350,000 on federal lobbying last year.

“We go to Washington because Washington is interested in this, and we’re achieving our goal of helping educate people on the benefits of the BCS system,” Bill Hancock, the BCS’s executive director, told Politico, specifying revenue sharing among colleges. “The decisions about college football are best made by the universities, the education system, and not Congress.”

Given Congress’ interest in the BCS, it probably won’t shock you to learn that several senators fought over the weighty matter of college football conference realignments last year.

And you may be happy to learn that fans aren’t being left out of the stadium when it comes to football lobbying. The Sports Fans Coalition, established in 2009 and led partly by aides to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, spent $80,000 on lobbying in 2011.

The group has mounted an opposition to NFL TV blackout rules, arguing that taxpayers who help fund the construction of football stadiums ought to be able to watch the games played in them.


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