Some days, it’s hard to figure out whether the NFL has become the Donald Trump of American athletics, or whether Donald Trump has become the NFL of American politics.
In any case, the parallels are impossible to miss. They are both big, loud, ubiquitous brands, proudly ignorant of complex realities, impervious to moral reflection, and, as sheer spectacle, irresistible to the media.
Which is why Politico, that eager little factory of Inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom, decided to take a break from Trump coverage earlier this week to serve up a pair of stories about the NFL, which kicks off its official season of non-stop coverage this week.
The pieces in question focused specifically on the league’s lobbying efforts in Washington. One provides an overview of the league’s overall strategy. The other is an “in-depth” interview with Cynthia Hogan, a former Joe Biden staffer who now heads what we are told is “the only full-time lobbying operation run by a major sports league in Washington.”
It is unclear to me why an organ of journalism that purports to cover politics would devote so much space to a lobbyist who is not, in fact, under indictment. After all, lobbyists are essentially the human form that special interests take. They don’t deal in scoops. They deal in propaganda.
Still, Politico might have made good use of the opportunity to grill Hogan. Her interviewer might have asked, for instance, how concerned the league is about federal regulation, given the NFL’s own estimates that 30 percent of its players will eventually suffer long-term cognitive ailments.
Oddly, that chilling figure never comes up in the discussion. Instead, the interview focuses on the forthcoming Will Smith movie, "Concussion," which tells the story of the forensic pathologist who discovered that football was causing dementia in retired players.
Because why ask a lobbyist a question about incontrovertible medical evidence when you can ask her about a Hollywood movie instead?
Here, for the record, is Hogan’s response:
“The movie Concussion, I think, is a snapshot of a specific period in the past. I think what we are hopeful is that this is an opportunity for us to get out to people information on where we are now. And so, I think we look at it a little bit as an opportunity.”
At this point, it would probably help to know that the 30 percent figure cited above was submitted by the NFL’s own actuaries a year ago. It’s not ancient history. It is, in fact, “where we are now.”
There is no medical consensus as to how dangerous football is to those who play the game—at the pro level, or elsewhere—because the medical researchers are still catching up. But the news isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.
Which is partly why the NFL has folks like Hogan in Washington—to make sure that no politicians get any funny ideas about regulating a workplace where nearly a third of the employees can expect to suffer brain damage.
But lest you fear that Hogan doesn’t take the health risks to players seriously, consider her response to a question about the use of sensors inside helmets that could monitor potential injuries to the brain.
From a medical point of view, these devices represent a pretty common-sense preventive measure. Unless you’re the NFL—which wants fans indulging in the violence of the game but not thinking about its neurological aftershocks.
“We’ve done pilot programs. The players have felt that the sensors are not yet at the point technologically wise where they are reliable enough. The players don’t want to come off the field for false readings. And so, it's something that I think we're going to have to continue to look at.”
Did you catch that? The players just aren’t sure those darn devices work!
To get a sense of how insane this rationale is, consider how it would sound if a lobbyist for the coal industry explained that his clients were not going to use a device to monitor black lung because the miners just didn’t think it was ready.
In fact, the vast majority of the Politico interview focuses not on player health, but on the same trumped-up scandals that fill the aggrieved hours of sports talk radio: Deflategate, the blithe use of a racial epithet by Washington’s franchise, the off-the-field crimes committed by players, and so on.
It’s not that these issues don’t matter. But they have almost nothing to do with why the NFL employs high-powered lobbyists such as Hogan. As a matter of historical context, the NFL has spent more than a million dollars per annum on lobbyists over the past eight years, employing around twenty any given year, according to the good folks at the Center for Responsive Politics. (This is to say nothing of the political contributions the league makes.)
The reason the NFL is so eager to peddle influence in Washington is precisely because the league wants to make sure they continue to rake in billions with virtually no government oversight.
All this dates back to the 1960s, when the league’s canny young commissioner, Pete Rozelle, dispatched lobbyists to Washington. They managed to convince legislators to pass two laws that essentially legalized the NFL’s monopoly status and (for good measure) granted the league non-profit status.
Much of the reason the NFL makes $10 billion dollars per year is because the league’s 32 teams—which are, in fact, competing businesses—are allowed to negotiate collectively when it comes to TV contracts, merchandising, and so on.
And this is putting aside, by the way, the billions of dollars in public funding that owners extract from city and county politicians desperate to keep their franchises around.
Earlier this year, the NFL did finally surrender its tax-exempt status. But it was obvious to anyone with a functioning bullshit detector (that is, anyone who doesn’t work for Politico) that the league had done this for two reasons, neither of which involved the public good.
First, to avoid having politicians citing this obscene abuse of the public trust as an incentive for proposed reforms. And second, to avoid having to disclose league employee salaries and other financial information.
Whatever PR the league puts out when it comes to hot button issues such as domestic abuse, the real concern for folks like Hogan is making sure that politicians such as U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal don’t mess with the NFL’s precious anti-trust exemptions.
As with virtually anything that involves lobbyists, the real story Cynthia Hogan is telling is about insanely rich men trying to keep elected representatives from cutting into their profits.
In this case, those men derive their profits from a workplace that is both shockingly dangerous and remarkably alluring. So alluring, in fact, that fans could basically care less whether or not their gridiron heroes wind up with dementia.
The role of journalists in such a circumstance shouldn’t be to promote league propagandists. It should be to interview the medical researchers and economists and politicians and players who can shed light on what football means as a moral undertaking.
That’s clearly way too much to ask of the hacks at Politico.
But as our annual orgy of gridiron hype kicks into high gear, let’s hope there are some actual journalists prepared to do that honest work.