Sports and Policy Don’t Always Mix

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco warms up prior to an NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Denver.
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Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Sept. 8, 2013, 8 a.m.

When re­tired bas­ket­ball star Sha­quille O’Neal turned up at a Wash­ing­ton school to help pro­mote first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” cam­paign Fri­day, the re­sponse was swift. Be­cause he pro­motes his own line of sug­ary drinks, health ad­voc­ates ques­tioned his ded­ic­a­tion to fight­ing obesity.

“I won­der wheth­er a part­ner­ship with Sha­quille O’Neal does more harm than good,” said Margo Wootan, dir­ect­or of nu­tri­tion policy at the Cen­ter for Sci­ence in the Pub­lic In­terest.

It cer­tainly wasn’t the first time sports fig­ures have been part of selling policy — or the first time it drew com­plaints. Just as they help sell shoes and sports drinks, ath­letes and their teams have in­creas­ingly been used by gov­ern­ment agen­cies to pro­mote their pro­grams, from Obama­care and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion to mil­it­ary ser­vice. The res­ults have been mixed.

But the po­lar­iz­ing de­bate hasn’t kept all sports or­gan­iz­a­tions from get­ting in­volved. The Bal­timore Ravens, soon to mount a de­fense of their 2012 Su­per Bowl title, an­nounced a part­ner­ship last week with Mary­land Health Con­nec­tion to help pro­mote the new Af­ford­able Care Act in­sur­ance mar­ket­place.

The part­ner­ship is de­signed to boost out­reach ef­forts less than one month be­fore the ex­changes launch Oct. 1. Of­fi­cials es­tim­ate that more than 70 per­cent of un­in­sured Marylanders have watched, listened to, or at­ten­ded a Ravens game in the past year, and the part­ner­ship will in­clude a paid-me­dia cam­paign on tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, and Web.

The Ravens are not the only team to pro­mote pieces of the Af­ford­able Care Act. The Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als tapped pres­id­en­tial mas­cot Teddy Roosevelt to tout the in­sur­ance ex­changes in Ju­ly. In­di­vidu­al ath­letes have also got­ten in­volved. Former NBA star Earvin “Ma­gic” John­son paid a vis­it to the White House late last month and tweeted out a re­mind­er about the ex­changes.

Many of these ef­forts have not been polit­ic­ally pop­u­lar.

Earli­er this year, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us’s an­nounce­ment that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was talk­ing about pro­mo­tion with sports or­gan­iz­a­tions — spe­cific­ally, the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League — pro­duced a back­lash. Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers sent let­ters to six pro­fes­sion­al sports leagues — the NFL, Ma­jor League Base­ball, the Na­tion­al Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­ation, the Na­tion­al Hockey League, the Pro­fes­sion­al Golfers’ As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ica, and NAS­CAR — im­plor­ing them not to pro­mote Obama­care.

“Giv­en the di­vis­ive­ness and per­sist­ent un­pop­ular­ity of this bill, it is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why an or­gan­iz­a­tion like yours would risk dam­aging its in­clus­ive and apolit­ic­al brand by lend­ing its name to its pro­mo­tion,” wrote Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc”‹Con­nell, R-Ky., and Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, in their let­ter to the NFL.

The NFL backed away from any in­volve­ment.

The of­fices of Mc­Con­nell and Cornyn did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on the Ravens’ part­ner­ship. But the NFL did. “It was a team de­cision,” NFL spokes­man Bri­an Mc­Carthy wrote in an e-mail. “We have not had any fur­ther dis­cus­sion with the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form, an an­ti­tax group, also re­spon­ded to the Ravens an­nounce­ment, start­ing an on­line pe­ti­tion against the part­ner­ship. “They’re about to com­mit an un­sports­man­like pen­alty against foot­ball fans every­where by shov­ing slick new Obama­care ads down fans’ throats,” it said.

In oth­er cases, the costs of pro­mot­ing policy through sports have raised eye­brows. The armed ser­vices, for ex­ample, have cut back — but not elim­in­ated — the use of sports pro­mo­tions. While the Army, Navy, and Mar­ine Corps have ended their NAS­CAR spon­sor­ships, the Na­tion­al Guard is pay­ing a total of $53 mil­lion on mo­tor-sports and wrest­ling pro­mo­tions, in­clud­ing its spon­sor­ship of driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. An amend­ment by Rep. Betty Mc­Col­lum, D-Minn., to lim­it such spon­sor­ships has failed in the House for the past three years.

In oth­er cases, teams that have taken no dir­ect in­volve­ment in policy pro­mo­tion have been used to il­lus­trate ad­min­is­tra­tion-backed ef­forts. In Au­gust, the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency — which reg­u­larly uses Pres­id­ent Obama’s #Ac­tOn­Cli­mate Twit­ter hasht­ag — pub­lished a “Green Sports Score­card” high­light­ing teams and sports ven­ues that have taken steps to re­duce car­bon pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change.

For ex­ample, the Seattle Mar­iners in­stalled an LED score­board, drop­ping elec­tri­city con­sump­tion by more than 90 per­cent; the Phil­adelphia Eagles have switched many of their clean­ing products to en­vir­on­ment­ally friendly brands; and the Clev­e­land In­di­ans have ex­pan­ded their sta­di­um re­cyc­ling fa­cil­it­ies to cut waste.

EPA’s score­card also in­cluded a link to Obama’s cli­mate ac­tion plan and high­lighted the pres­id­ent’s ef­forts on cli­mate change.

The Let’s Move! cam­paign has pur­sued a broad range of part­ner­ships in the sports world. Par­ti­cipants have in­cluded the L.A. Galaxy, ten­nis great An­dre Agassi, U.S. Olympi­ans, and a host of MLB and NFL play­ers, coaches, and ex­ec­ut­ives.

But O’Neal’s pro­mo­tion of Soda Shaq, a drink pro­duced by Ari­zona Bever­ages that hit stores this sum­mer, im­me­di­ately drew fire.

“I un­der­stand that they want to find stars that will ap­peal to chil­dren and that will get good vis­ib­il­ity,” Wootan said, “but, at the same time, you have to be care­ful about the kind of mes­sage that it sends.”

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