The Big Game: Federal Government vs. the NFL

More than ever before, Congress and the White House are challenging football.

President Obama throws a football at Soldier Field in Chicago.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
May 30, 2014, 7:33 a.m.

In re­cent months, polit­ics and Amer­ic­an foot­ball have been clash­ing in­creas­ingly of­ten. Con­gress and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion have found them­selves on the op­pos­ite side from the NFL over is­sues ran­ging from health con­cerns and dop­ing to a team’s ra­cist name and the league’s non­profit status.

Pres­id­ent Obama is the most re­cent entrant to the fray. Fol­low­ing a smat­ter­ing of com­ments over the course of the two years that hin­ted at his con­cern over con­cus­sions in foot­ball, Obama brought to­geth­er lead­ers of na­tion­al sports leagues at the White House on Thursday for a Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Con­cus­sion Sum­mit. At the event, the pres­id­ent an­nounced nu­mer­ous part­ner­ships with sports or­gan­iz­a­tions, in­clud­ing a $30 mil­lion pro­gram in con­junc­tion with the NCAA and the De­fense De­part­ment for con­cus­sion edu­ca­tion, and a $25 mil­lion pledge from the NFL to fund a vari­ety of strategies to re­duce con­cus­sion rates. While the con­fer­ence fo­cused on the safety of young people, the NFL could be wor­ried that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of pro foot­ball play­ers (or their par­ents) might shy away from the sport in fa­vor of safer pas­times.

Obama has re­marked on safety in foot­ball be­fore. Last year, he told The New Re­pub­lic, “I think that those of us who love the sport are go­ing to have to wrestle with the fact that it will prob­ably change gradu­ally to try to re­duce some of the vi­ol­ence.” In a con­ver­sa­tion with The New York­er in Janu­ary of this year, Obama said out­right, “I would not let my son play pro foot­ball.”

The com­plaints over safety aren’t com­ing out of nowhere. In Au­gust 2013, un­der na­tion­al scru­tiny, the NFL settled a law­suit brought against it by former play­ers for $765 mil­lion. The sum will be ap­plied to­ward med­ic­al ex­ams and re­search, lit­ig­a­tion ex­penses, and com­pens­a­tion for af­fected play­ers.

Months after the law­suit settled, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in­tro­duced a bill to strip the NFL of its non­profit status. Un­der cur­rent law, the league is ex­empt from taxes be­cause it qual­i­fies as a 501(c)(6) or­gan­iz­a­tion along with “busi­ness leagues, cham­bers of com­merce, real es­tate boards, and boards of trade,” ac­cord­ing to the IRS. A fea­ture in The At­lantic out­lined the big-tick­et costs that NFL teams pass on to tax­pay­ers.

Most re­cently, the foot­ball team in Wash­ing­ton has been un­der fire for re­fus­ing to change a name that is a ra­cist slur. A band of 50 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors came to­geth­er to sign a let­ter sponsored by Sen. Maria Can­t­well, D-Wash., ur­ging the com­mis­sion­er of the NFL, Ro­ger Goodell, to throw his weight be­hind a name change for the team.

On Thursday, the NFL tried to strike back with an ill-fated Twit­ter cam­paign. The of­fi­cial ac­count of the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team tweeted an at­tempt to rally sup­port be­hind its name and send a clear mes­sage to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev.:

Think­Pro­gress com­piled some of the fal­lout that the com­mu­nic­a­tions team be­hind the tweet may not have an­ti­cip­ated, made up of replies that ranged from “ob­stin­ate ig­nor­ance” to “overt ra­cism.”

Once an es­cape from polit­ics, foot­ball — the most pop­u­lar sport in the U.S. for the 30th year run­ning — is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly tangled up with a Con­gress suf­fer­ing from re­cord-break­ing low ap­prov­al rat­ings. The pace only seems to be in­creas­ing: The gov­ern­ment and the NFL may re­main strange bed­fel­lows for some time.

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