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Congresswoman Linda Sanchez

Representing the 38th District of CA

National Journal: As Congress Probes Concussions, NFL Launches Campaign Cash Blitz

February 1, 2016
In The News

­Facing in­creas­ing scru­tiny in Wash­ing­ton over its hand­ling of con­cus­sions and long-term brain in­jur­ies in its play­ers, the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League donated $507,211 to mem­bers of Con­gress in 2015, put­ting it on pace for its highest spend­ing ever in a polit­ic­al cycle.

The league’s polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee, called the “Grid­iron PAC,” is shower­ing cash par­tic­u­larly on the mem­bers of a House pan­el in­vest­ig­at­ing the causes, ef­fects, and treat­ment of con­cus­sions. Of the 46 mem­bers of the con­cus­sion pan­el, made up of law­makers on three House En­ergy and Com­merce sub­com­mit­tees, 27 re­ceived a total of $76,500 from the NFL’s PAC in 2015, ac­cord­ing to re­cent fil­ings with the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion.

The full roster of the En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee re­ceived a total of $109,000 last year from the PAC, which draws its money largely from NFL own­ers and man­age­ment. Those fig­ures dwarf the $65,600 the NFL gave to En­ergy and Com­merce mem­bers in the two-year 2014 cycle, and put it on pace to well ex­ceed the $127,000 it gave to com­mit­tee mem­bers in 2012 cycle.

An NFL spokes­man said that the Grid­iron PAC was largely in­act­ive in early 2014 due to staff­ing changes, but was re­turn­ing to a “nor­mal level of activ­ity” that ac­coun­ted for the in­creased dona­tions. “The NFL PAC con­tin­ues to sup­port a broad ar­ray of can­did­ates from both parties serving on a vari­ety of com­mit­tees,” the spokes­man said.

The NFL is also fa­cing polit­ic­al cri­ti­cism for its sup­port of daily-fantasy-sports sites and the league’s ex­emp­tion from an­ti­trust laws. But no is­sue looms as large as ac­cus­a­tions that the NFL ig­nored evid­ence in­dic­at­ing the po­ten­tially dire health con­sequences of re­peated blows to the head.

The House’s con­cus­sion re­view, an­nounced in late Decem­ber, will bring to­geth­er med­ic­al ex­perts, mil­it­ary of­fi­cials, lead­ers from sports leagues, and oth­er stake­hold­ers to brief mem­bers on re­search and help de­term­ine if fu­ture con­gres­sion­al ac­tion is ne­ces­sary.

Rep. Tim Murphy, chair­man of the Over­sight and In­vest­ig­a­tions Sub­com­mit­tee, said in an in­ter­view that the probe is meant to go bey­ond the sports world, des­pite the at­ten­tion that the NFL and Na­tion­al Hockey League have drawn to head in­jur­ies. The re­view will cov­er the mil­it­ary, plus “auto­mo­biles to hel­mets to oth­er risk factors that oc­cur in in­ter­state com­merce,” Murphy said.

“We’re not here to set the rules for the NFL or the NHL, but let’s just see what we can learn,” he said.

But a brief­ing or­gan­ized by Murphy last month showed how cent­ral the NFL is to the in­vest­ig­a­tion. Murphy and Rep. Jack­ie Spei­er brought in Ben­net Omalu, the neuro­path­o­lo­gist known for his work identi­fy­ing de­gen­er­at­ive brain dis­ease in foot­ball play­ers, to dis­cuss head in­jur­ies with mem­bers and staff. Omalu’s work—por­trayed in the movie Con­cus­sion with Will Smith—has put him on a col­li­sion course with the NFL, and Spei­er said that Con­gress’s own probe would have to con­front the league.

“This is a chance to shine a bright light on the sci­entif­ic con­sensus that the NFL has failed to ad­equately ad­dress,” Spei­er said, call­ing the NFL the “biggest Go­liath around.”

Sep­ar­ate from the main con­cus­sion re­view, En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee Demo­crats are prob­ing the NFL’s role in a fed­er­al study on head in­jur­ies. ES­PN re­por­ted that the NFL yanked fund­ing for a sev­en-year, $16 mil­lion Bo­ston Uni­versity study that was to be fun­ded, in part, by a $30 mil­lion dona­tion from the NFL to the Found­a­tion for the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health.

STAT re­por­ted last month that the NFL’s dona­tion, which had been billed as an “un­res­tric­ted gift,” ac­tu­ally came with con­di­tions, in­clud­ing that the found­a­tion had to reach a “mu­tu­al agree­ment” on the re­search con­cepts, timeline, and budget of the re­search.

In ad­di­tion to donat­ing money to mem­bers’ cam­paigns, the NFL is also ramp­ing up its lob­by­ing op­er­a­tions. In 2014, it hired Cyn­thia Hogan, a former aide to Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, to lead its Wash­ing­ton out­reach, and last year it spent just un­der $1.2 mil­lion on lob­by­ing. Last month, the NFL also hired Joe Lock­hart, former spokes­man for Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton, as ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of com­mu­nic­a­tions.

That spend­ing far out­strips the oth­er ma­jor sports leagues (Ma­jor League Base­ball, for ex­ample, only just opened a lob­by­ing shop in mid-Janu­ary). The NHL, grap­pling with its own con­cus­sion ques­tions, has re­por­ted just $20,000 in lob­by­ing since 2014 and doesn’t op­er­ate a PAC, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics.

In an ES­PN pro­file, Hogan com­pared the league’s grow­ing pres­ence on the Hill to that of Sil­ic­on Val­ley a dec­ade ago. “They un­der­stand that once they’re big enough, they have to play in Wash­ing­ton. Oth­er­wise you can’t pro­tect your­self,” she told ES­PN.

In a 2013 re­port, the watch­dog group Cit­izens for Re­spons­ib­il­ity and Eth­ics in Wash­ing­ton char­ac­ter­ized the NFL’s spend­ing as a “de­fens­ive game” meant to, in part, stave off more con­gres­sion­al in­ter­ven­tion on head in­jur­ies. The House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee called NFL Com­mis­sion­er Ro­ger Goodell to testi­fy at a 2009 hear­ing on the is­sue, which promp­ted some safety changes. In the years after the hear­ing, the NFL gave some $120,000 to ma­jor­ity mem­bers on the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing $7,500 in the past two cycles to Chair­man Bob Good­latte.

Be­hind the scenes, Rep. Linda Sanc­hez was push­ing the com­mit­tee for more hear­ings on the is­sue, but to no avail. “It’s great to see oth­er com­mit­tees are con­tinu­ing the work done by the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee on this is­sue that I have been in­volved with for a long time,” Sanc­hez said in a state­ment. “We still have a long way to go to en­sur­ing ath­letes—from youth sports to the NFL—are not re­peatedly ex­posed to severe brain in­jur­ies.”