Can Democrats Take On The NFL?

Congress has a rocky history of pressing sports leagues to act.

Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green, above, dives over Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, left, and free safety Mike Mitchell during the first half in an NFL football divisional playoff game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Denver.
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
March 23, 2016, 8 p.m.

House Democrats are raring to confront the National Football League over its handling of concussions, but they may find it as tough as passing against the Denver Broncos defense.

An earlier attempt to hold NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accountable for the game’s safety risks fizzled out and Congress’s other dealings with sports leagues are often dismissed as grandstanding. The NFL’s billions in profits and cultural status as the biggest sport in the country also make it tough to touch, even on an issue as big as concussions.

Democrats are hoping that this time can be different. An NFL official admitted this month for the first time a link between playing football and chron­ic trau­mat­ic en­ceph­alo­pathy, a degenerative brain disorder. Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone has since called for hearings with the NFL and National Collegiate Athletic Association as part of the committee’s broad review of head injuries.

And while Democrats may not be able to call hearings on their own, they are hoping to keep pressure on the NFL by probing the league’s withdrawal of funding for a National Institutes of Health study of head injuries. In a letter to the NFL on Wednesday, Pallone and three other Democrats highlight documents acquired from the NIH that show NFL officials raising concerns about the selection of a Boston University researcher for the study, including an NFL request that money also go to two other researchers to “dilute the voice of a more marginal group.”

The Democrats charge that intervening in the grant-selection process is “troubling,” and also seek information about the makeup and reimbursement of the league’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee, which advises on head injuries.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky said she didn’t realize that she was setting precedent when she prodded Jeff Miller, the NFL’s ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of health and safety policy, to say there was a link between the repeated blows to the head in football and CTE. The admission could prompt action in a lawsuit from retired players against the NFL that is on appeal, or inspire new suits.

And Schakowsky said she wasn’t ready to stop there.

“We need to continue the research into brain trauma of all sorts,” said Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, even as she acknowledged “the elephant in the room is billions of dollars in big sports.” In fact, despite the NFL’s recent admission, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones this week said it was “absurd” to link concussions to football.

Rep. Linda Sanchez knows how tough this effort can be. In a 2009 Judiciary Committee hearing, she excoriated Goodell for a “blanket denial” of the risk of brain trauma, comparing the league to tobacco companies that denied a link between smoking and cancer. After the hearing, she continued to push for more congressional action on sports and head injuries, but that marked the end of the Judiciary Committee’s public work.

When Democrats lost the House, Texas Republican Lamar Smith took over the committee and Sanchez said he had no interest in holding further hearings. In that 2009 hearing, Smith—now chairman of the House Science Committee—questioned the veracity of studies showing high rates of dementia in retired NFL players and warned members that “Monday morning quarterbacking does not necessarily qualify us as experts.”

“The NFL is rich and powerful and it influences people,” Sanchez said in an interview. “If you’re Lamar Smith and you’re from Texas, where football is a religion, it’s not likely you’re going to get anybody to dig deep.”

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and the Senate Special Committee on Aging held subsequent hearings on sports injuries, but prompted no meaningful action. Congress has also threatened the NFL over everything from its antitrust status to the Washington Redskins’ nickname, a pet issue of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

And the NFL has started fighting back. The league’s political action committee donated $507,211 in 2015, on pace for its highest total in any election cycle. The league has also hired several White House alumni to serve in its Washington office, promising to step up its lobbying work.

Congress has often had trouble tackling sports seriously. Although sports leagues are classified as interstate commerce, giving Congress jurisdiction over them, legislators’ attempts to intervene have been criticized as an overreach or a distraction from real issues. Perhaps the best-known example was a series of hearings featuring baseball stars such as Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens to answer questions about steroid use.

Those hearings, however, did not produce any new confessions (the court system proved a better avenue for that) and were criticized as bordering on McCarthyism.

Democrats hope that this time will be different. The movie Concussion, a flow of stories about the long-term effects of brain injuries, and chilling accounts from retired players have brought the issue into the spotlight. And members have tried to tie it to legislation protecting youth athletes.

“We’ve spent a lot of time just trying to admit the link,” Sanchez said. “Now it’s time for Congress to push for increased awareness and further study so you can arm parents and children with the information they need to stay safe.”

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