As Congress Probes Concussions, NFL Launches Campaign Cash Blitz

Members of a new concussion panel have already raked in $76,500 in campaign donations from the NFL.

AP Photo/Mike McCarn
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Jason Plautz
Feb. 1, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.”

Graphics by Libby Isenstein

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