The polarizing topic of political campaign contributions and the theoretical access they can buy became a contentious topic during this year’s political election. When a private American has an issue they feel passionate about, they’re told to write their representatives, or even run for local office. But if you’re the NFL, you shell out nearly $1 million to make sure your voice is heard.
For nearly a decade, the NFL has operated a political action committee (PAC) called the Gridiron PAC. It has multiple registered lobbyists, collects hundreds of donations from NFL teams, family members and league employees and pushes the league’s agenda in Washington. So why does the league have such a stark, million-dollar presence in Washington D.C.?
“The NFL regularly engages with Congress on a wide range of public policy matters,” a spokesperson from the league said. “Our Washington presence is designed to appropriately respond to requests and advocate the league’s position on any number of issues. The Gridiron PAC supports a broad array of candidates from both parties serving on a variety of committees.”
At first glance, it seems mundane, almost unnecessary to dole out nearly $1 million in campaign contributions, especially when it touches both sides of a political aisle. According to campaign finance records, Democratic candidates for U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate have received approximately $220,000, while their Republican counterparts have received approximately $267,000 in contributions for the 2016 campaign cycle – the rest of the money is spent on administrative fees, accountants and legal services. Those numbers were most recently pulled from the Federal Election Commission by the Center for Responsive Politics on Aug. 22, 2016.
So what does a PAC really get and why is it costing the league so much money?
According to Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, it gets you access, and that makes a ton of sense from an NFL perspective.
“A PAC is a way to give money to members of Congress’ campaigns and a way to thus open doors and make sure that they can get their voice heard,” she said.
Like a lot of other PACs, it’s beneficial especially for league owners because they can give through the PAC and donate to individual candidates. But more importantly, now armed with all of this cash, where does it go and to whom? Well the lawmakers that oversee the league’s interests, of course.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon that you see kind of across the board,” Novak said. “You’ll see various companies or industries giving the most to members of the committees that oversee them.”
She added, “So the NFL, it has interests in concussion research as well as other health issues and also things like broadcast rights, labor issues, antitrust issues, there’s a whole range of issues that they have to be concerned about and want to watch in Washington.”
The PAC is a league-wide initiative that’s now run organized and managed by Indianapolis Colts Owner Jim Irsay. The Colts did not agree to an interview on Irsay’s involvement.
It explicitly is not just a million-dollar pet project of Irsay’s and a few select owners, however. So far, for the 2016 election cycle, every NFL team has donated except for the Bills, Dolphins, Ravens, Lions and Saints. All five of those teams contributed in 2014 and a spokesmen for the Saints confirmed that, in the past, they’ve always been happy to donate their share.
“We have contributed and supported the Gridiron PAC in the past and continue to support the NFL’s governmental programs, just last month our team’s governmental affairs director was in Washington D.C. with league representatives working on numerous programs together,” the spokesperson said. “We are in lock step with the NFL when it comes to governmental issues and programs. There are many ways in which we – the Saints – support the NFL on governmental programs, whether it be financial support or collaborative support, and we will continue to do so.”
Some teams give more than others, per election cycle, however they’re mum on why they’re name continuously pops up more than others on campaign finance records. The Atlanta Falcons top the list of teams with donors more than $1,000 with 12 and the Cincinnati Bengals have given the second most donations more than the $1,000 threshold with a total of 11 – the maximum is $5,000 for an individual donation.
A spokesperson for the Bengals said the team has never really thought about where it gives in relation to the other teams in the league and simply said it’s a league program and they were happy to contribute at the level suggested to them.
The team with the third most donors, at 10, is the Washington Redskins. Even with the obvious proximity to Washington, the team has also been discussed at the federal level quite often because of their name. Last year, Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton renewed a push to strip the team of its name, by introducing a bill that would strip the league of its antitrust exemption. Norton has never received any donations from the PAC.
Actually 50 Democratic senators wrote a letter to the Redskins urging them to change their name, all but Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas participated. Pryor, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received the max $10,000 donation in 2014 from the PAC.
Another vocal critic of the name has been Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has had his fair-share of disagreements with the league. Also, not a recipient of the league’s political generosity, Blumenthal and the league have battled over the Redskins name and concussions in football.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has arguably the biggest stake in the future of the NFL. If you ask almost any player, owner or fan, they’ll tell you the health of players probably threatens the league the most. There’s been bold assertions the game would go the way of boxing, or even be extinct in a few decades.
So as part of their regular duties, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce overseas concussion research in congress.
In the 2016 election cycle, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, the NFL has donated to the campaigns of 38 of 53 members of the committee. The chairman, Fred Upton, received $10,000, the most of any candidate this year and the maximum allowed by law.
That’s not to outright accuse the league and a huge swath of elected officials of impropriety. In fact, the league is pretty open about what they want. Jordan Libowitz the communications director of citizens for responsibility and ethics in Washington (CREW) explained the league is big business, with revenues north of $13 billion.
“When they give generously to politicians, you have to assume they want something out of it,” Libowitz said. “That’s always the fear when it comes to money in politics. You have to imagine they aren’t giving out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Upton, the same congressman that’s receiving $10,000 this year, received a total of $30,000 in 2012 and 2014, according to Libowitz. In 2012, a big issue in the league was the disagreement between the NFL and NFLPA over how to implement testing for human growth hormone.
In July 2012, Upton and three other committee leaders wrote to the NFL and the NFLPA expressing concern about whether a comprehensive testing program for human growth hormone would be in place prior to the start of the 2012 season, according to Libowitz. Three weeks before the letter was sent, Upton’s campaign committee accepted a $5,000 contribution from Gridiron PAC.
The NFL doesn’t exactly have a spotless record when it comes to interfering or not interfering in federal happenings either, so there is a precedent. A bombshell report from ESPN’s Outside the Lines and a subsequent study by the committee on energy and commerce’s Democratic members – led by Frank Pallone, a recipient of $5,000 in 2016 but $0 in 2014 – found the league improperly tried to influence the direction of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) concussion research.
According to the report, the league both attempted to influence the grant selection process at NIH and their subsequent rationalization that the Boston University Study did not match their request was unfounded. The league had originally donated the $30 million for the study.
The league actually has a long history of using politics to get what it wants, sometimes to the benefit of the league, sometimes to the benefit of the politician and sometimes to the benefit of both. While the Gridiron PAC didn’t start raising money and become involved in elections until 2010, politics and football have never been strangers.
The actual merger of the NFL and AFL was a product of politics, giving the league its antitrust exemption back in the day. But out of that, through some creative dealing, Congressman Hale Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat, was able to get a team in New Orleans.
Boggs was the House Majority Whip at the time, according to a New York Times piece from 2010, and since the merger needed a blessing from congress, Boggs pulled off the first big trade of the new NFL: He scored the New Orleans Saints in exchange for an antitrust exemption.
But therein lies a bit of another issue with a powerful PAC like the one the NFL owners are currently funding. It’s not the only street that ends in influence. As private citizens, owners can donate to various other campaigns. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, for example, was the national finance chair for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
On the eve of the Super Bowl, a report from CREW had found NFL owners had given approximately $4.5 million to presidential candidates in 2015. Robert McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, gave a decidedly non-partisan amount to presidential candidates, donating $500,000 to various Super PACs supporting several Republican presidential candidates.
The odd thing is while it’s seemingly unsavory, the idea that money is donated to politicians from a league that has a clear vested interest in policy decisions, the league doesn’t shy away. In fact, the players have their own PAC, although it’s much less powerful from a financial standpoint
The players, as brands themselves, have more power than their checkbooks often, appearing before congressional hearings themselves in certain cases like the 2011 lockout.
So next time you mention politics at a football game and someone tells you to stick to sports, let them know there’s a good chance their team owner hasn’t gotten the message and are taking the money you spent on tickets and throwing it into the campaign of a candidate who may represent a state on the other side of the country.