How Roger Goodell and Cynthia Hogan are turning the NFL into a political machine

CYNTHIA HOGAN, THE NFL's top lobbyist, stuck to her game plan, even as a high-level aide to a U.S. congressman grilled her. They sat facing each other in the congressman's Capitol Hill office, Hogan flanked by two contract lobbyists from blue-chip firms, the staffer by a colleague of his own. They had all come together on this mid-November afternoon to hash out, among other things, the increasingly fraught matter of daily fantasy sports.

The aide pressed: Isn't daily fantasy -- with its inflated promises of million-dollar payouts -- just sports gambling by a different name? Not unless the courts say so, replied Hogan. Would Roger Goodell be willing to testify before Congress on the matter? "The commissioner," Hogan said, "has already addressed the matter publicly." Really, she contested, none of this has anything to do with the NFL.

Hogan had been arguing these points for two months. Shortly after Congress began making noise about DraftKings and FanDuel in September, she and her small team of NFL-employed lobbyists had swung into action, meeting with the half-dozen congressional and Senate committees that could plausibly threaten the industry. She also brought in contracted lobbyists as reinforcements. "We felt it was important for people on the Hill to understand what the facts were and what our position is," she said. Which is to say: The NFL maintains its opposition to gambling because it considers daily fantasy sports a game of skill, not a game of chance, so please stop bugging them.

But if crisis management were simply a matter of regurgitating sanitized talking points, billion-dollar corporations -- in and out of sports -- wouldn't need to spend millions on lobbyists like Hogan. Her job -- an ever more important one for the NFL -- is to work inside the system, building relationships before she needs them, and trading on the ones she's already developed. Sometimes she works to block Congress from action; sometimes she works to clear a path.

The NFL hired Hogan as its new senior vice president of public policy and government affairs last season in the wake of the Ray Rice fiasco. That made her first job to deal with members of Congress pressing the league on how it handled domestic violence. She's also been hands-on, quite literally, when it comes to the concussion problem, going so far as to arrange a demonstration on proper tackling technique for politicians. Her work is the most visible layer of the NFL's burgeoning Washington presence.

While the other three major sports leagues have influence-peddlers in D.C. -- and a vested interest in how the daily fantasy issue turns out -- none of their efforts stack up to the NFL's. In 2014, the league spent more than $1.2 million on lobbyists, or nearly twice as much as the other three leagues combined. During the last election cycle, the NFL's political action committee, called Gridiron PAC, raised $900,000, about 55 percent more than MLB's; the NHL and NBA don't have PACs. (For what it's worth, pretty much everyone who donates to the NFL's PAC is an owner or family member of an owner.)

Hogan, a 58-year-old former longtime aide to Vice President Joe Biden, sits at the controls of Goodell's growing Washington machine. Which means that in this period of unprecedented NFL turmoil, it's her job to stave off the congressional horde -- one of the few forces that can actually make trouble for the league. It appears, so far, that she's up to the task. One aide to a Democratic senator who was highly critical of the league before Hogan was brought on, but has ceased her attacks since, put it this way: "They really made the right hire."


ONE OF ROGER Goodell's most public embarrassments occurred on Capitol Hill in 2009. He had been called before the House Judiciary Committee to testify about the link between football and brain injury. As congressional representatives grilled him, Goodell sat frozen, speaking in stilted legalese and referring questions to doctors who weren't there. He was scorched everywhere -- from social media to news sites to TV -- for his performance.

"They walked into the hearings like they owned the place, like they were gods and nobody could touch them," says California Democrat Linda Sanchez, who struck the hardest blow of the hearing when she compared the NFL to big tobacco. When it was over, she says, "They realized, holy s---, these people were serious."

Goodell had become commissioner just three years earlier, in 2006. During the 2008 political cycle, the NFL's PAC had spent just $17,600 -- a tiny amount by Washington standards -- on donations to politicians.

All of that changed after Goodell's performance on the Hill. Through the next election cycle, the NFL PAC donated nearly $700,000 to various campaigns. Since 2010, close to two dozen Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee -- who have the power to call Goodell to testify on concussions or any number of other league issues -- have received more than $120,000 from the NFL's PAC. (Overall, the NFL gives about equally to both parties.) During that time period, Sanchez repeatedly asked the committee to hold hearings on football and brain injuries, to no avail.

By 2014, though, the league still wasn't totally locked in on Washington: Two years earlier, Goodell had moved his first in-house lobbyist, Jeff Miller, to New York to work exclusively on player safety. And Adolpho Birch, ?the league executive then leading its political strategy, was based in New York, working only part time in D.C.

Then came Ray Rice. Goodell had already been looking for a new top lobbyist, but when the video of the Baltimore Ravens back striking his then-fiancée surfaced in September, the project gained new importance. Sixteen female Senators had signed onto a letter demanding the NFL adopt a "real zero-tolerance" policy on abuse. Others openly called for Goodell's resignation. Suddenly, a sizable portion of the nation's political class found itself scrutinizing the league's nonprofit tax status, antitrust exemptions -- anything that could fall under the purview of the United States Congress. Recalls one Democratic Senate staffer, "It got to this point where people were falling all over themselves, like, 'What's my NFL thing going to be?'"

But as the Rice scandal blew up, the NFL didn't have a full squad in D.C. to help clean up the mess. Goodell, the son of a politician, moved fast. A week after TMZ released its elevator footage, the NFL announced it had tabbed Hogan, who, as an aide to Biden, had helped craft the Violence Against Women Act. The hire earned the NFL near-universal praise, representing, at the very least, a valuable public relations victory for the league.

When she entered the job last September, though, Hogan needed to address more than just a short-term PR problem. Over the past several years, Congress has sparred with the league over television blackouts, Internet gambling, performing-enhancing drugs, antitrust law, tax breaks, brain trauma and, now, domestic violence. The amount the league spends, though steadily increasing, isn't a huge sum by D.C. measures. But as with Silicon Valley a decade ago, the NFL is only just beginning to feel its power.

"Look what's happening with tech," Hogan says. "They understand that once they're big enough, they have to play in Washington. Otherwise you can't protect yourself."

The NFL was finally ready to play in Washington -- it was up to Hogan to decide how.


BORN IN CINCINNATI, schooled at Oberlin College and the University of Virginia Law School, Hogan was in her mid-30s when, as a legal counsel for Joe Biden, she helped write the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Though Hogan worked for Biden in the Senate and the White House in various high-level roles over the next two decades, pretty much everyone saw her hire through the prism of the Rice scandal. That included cheerleaders like Kim Gandy, the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, who said in an interview she felt Hogan "was someone who would listen to us." And it included skeptics, like Democratic California Rep. Jackie Speier, who told Bloomberg, "It feels to me like the mother who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving going to work for the spirits industry."

But Hogan wasn't hired to rewrite NFL rules and reform the league from within. She was brought in to protect it. Hogan's first and simplest task -- to sit down and hear out disgruntled members of Congress -- was an implicit admission that the league had lost clout. It was also a canny way to soothe nerves on Capitol Hill.

"I think they're definitely more open to listening, rather than 'This is what our position is, and we're not changing,'" says one Hill staffer in regular communication with the league. Another congressional aide says that in the three years preceding the Ray Rice scandal, "we had maybe two meetings with the NFL." In the months following Ray Rice, he says, his office met with the league close to a dozen times.

Hogan's most formidable opponent has been Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat. Throughout 2014, Blumenthal hammered away at the league with a bill -- he called it the FANS Act -- that threatened its TV blackout policy. A year later, he was at it again with the SPORTS Act, which would require Congress to renew the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB's broadcast antitrust exemptions every five years, in case members aren't satisfied with the leagues' behavior.

"The NFL receives all kinds of benefits, extraordinary benefits that no other corporate entity does in this country," the wiry 69-year-old Blumenthal said in April, sitting in his Senate office. "They should be doing the minimum to make themselves a model of good conduct."

Blumenthal said he's impressed with Hogan's performance, but only because he thinks it signals a sort of humbling.

"The classic mistake made by powerful entities is to be overcomplacent," he said, comparing the NFL with 1990s-era Microsoft, which initially refused to hire a D.C. lobbyist. "It's another one of these emperor has no clothes phenomena. Goodell, in the way that he handled the Ray Rice issue, I think, lost some of the myth -- and it is a myth -- of invulnerability."

As Hogan moved past Rice and turned her attention to player safety -- the league's biggest long-term vulnerability -- she framed her gig as a sort of public interest crusade, in which she was merely providing "education" to politicians. "To some extent," she says, "I don't think Congress knows what we've done. When I get up to the Hill and tell people we have made significant rules changes over the last four seasons and the concussion rates are way down, they look at you like, 'Wow, really?'"

In late June, the NFL held an "interactive" how-not-to-get-injured-playing-youth-football seminar in the Rayburn House Office Building Cafeteria, at which attendees were granted the opportunity to "take the field" and learn proper tackling techniques from former NFLers Mike Singletary and Bill Cowher. In September, Hogan hosted another presentation for the Senate and House Commerce committees called "Gizmos, Gadgets and America's Game," about the role technology is playing to improve on-field safety ("eye in the sky" cameras, medical professionals with iPads and the like).

Not everyone is impressed with Hogan's D.C. programming. The fake tackling confab was conducted through USA Football's Heads Up program, which promises to "literally take the whole head out of tackling." Chris Nowinski, the co-founder of the concussion education group Sports Legacy Institute and a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, is one of those who finds the notion of removing violence from football through safer tackling absurd. "I guess it's sort of obvious why the NFL is on Capitol Hill trying to claim the children's version of their game is safe," Nowinski says. "I think they see children not playing as a threat to their business model."

The Gizmos and Gadgets presentation was also panned by some attendees, who found the league to be overly sunny about current technology's ability to make the game safer. A House staffer who has been active on the brain injury issue called the briefing a "nothing burger."

The purpose of all these efforts is simple. "Ultimately what [the NFL] wants is to be left alone," says one Democratic Senate aide whose office has met with Hogan several times. "They don't want us sending them letters. They don't want hearings where we're having them come and testify."

But even if Hogan's brand of government relations has rankled a few politicos, she has largely been effective. By forging relationships and arguing the NFL's case, she's helped win the league some breathing room in the capital. ESPN reached out to all 16 female senators who last fall signed the letter demanding a "real zero tolerance" policy on domestic assault, some of whom Hogan or her two deputies subsequently met with. None of them was made available for an interview. Their public demands for zero tolerance have also ceased.

Granted, part of that might owe to actual progress. After hiring Hogan, the league snatched up, among other marquee hires, veteran New York City sex crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel. And the league's revamped player conduct policy -- which Hogan helped craft -- now penalizes domestic abuse more harshly.

Either way, Hogan has been shrewd about making small concessions designed to win the league favor for when bigger issues arise. In April, for instance, the NFL decided to give up its much-derided nonprofit status, which had enabled it -- but not individual teams -- to avoid paying income tax, and which politicians had long used to bludgeon the NFL's reputation. (Tax rules require nonprofits to disclose executive salaries, leading to annual news stories about nonprofit CEO Roger Goodell's $40 million-plus salary.)

"In that [politicians] are talking about tax status, it's really not about this burning issue of federal tax policy, right?" Hogan said at the time. "It's really that they're irritated with us about some other issue."

By nixing its nonprofit status, the NFL took away one of Congress's most effective hooks into the league. As an added benefit, now that it's joined the tax rolls, the NFL no longer has to disclose Goodell's salary -- all for the estimated cost of about $10 million in annual taxes. The league seemed to employ similar logic when, under pressure from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, it suspended its frequently criticized TV blackout policy.

Congressman Jason Chaffetz was until recently one of the NFL's chief political irritants. Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and former college kicker out of Brigham Young University, chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and had introduced a bill earlier in 2015 that would have revoked the league's tax-free status. He had been threatening to call a not-entirely-pleasant hearing on the matter.

"Look, hats off to the NFL for doing the right thing," he said, days after the league renounced its policy. "I think they know we were serious about this. And rather than having to come testify before Congress, it was a better, smarter move for the NFL to actually do the right thing and voluntarily give up the tax-exempt status. We had some discussions with the NFL and made it very clear back in February with Cynthia. We explained our position and what we intended to do and when we intended to do it."

A few days before announcing his decision on the league's tax status, Goodell called Chaffetz to let him know. The congressman was pleased: "I told him, 'You have no worries from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. We will not be calling you before our committee to talk about this issue.'" Or any other issue, for that matter. "Football's great," Chaffetz said. "This country loves it. I'm not out to get them."


FOR ALL OF Hogan's D.C. savvy, she likely could not have predicted what has been the league's defining crisis this year.

In early September, as football season kicked off, New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. began making noise about daily fantasy sports. Apparently agitated by the league's opposition to his state's push to legalize sports betting -- not to mention the endless barrage of fantasy ads on his television -- the New Jersey Democrat couldn't help but see hypocrisy. His efforts garnered only limited attention until, a few weeks later, DraftKings and FanDuel were tagged with allegations that their employees were using insider information to get a leg up on the rest of the player pool. Soon, the rest of D.C. perked up. The FBI and the DOJ launched an investigation. Both Blumenthal and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez called for the Federal Trade Commission to look into consumer protection issues. State authorities began scrutinizing the sites -- Nevada demanded they obtain gaming licenses, forcing them to cease operating there. Meanwhile, FanDuel and DraftKings are currently waging a costly legal battle with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over whether they can continue to run games in his state.

Republican Congressman Fred Upton, who chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee, says a hearing is likely in 2016. "We think a hearing should happen," says one Democratic aide on the House Judiciary Committee, echoing a common sentiment on the Hill. "Any sane human being would say that this is gambling."

And so it was that Hogan found herself in that mid-November meeting with the congressional aide. He had gone into the discussion already frustrated by the league's embrace of DraftKings and FanDuel, in light of its opposition to gambling. It wasn't lost on him that all but four of the league's teams have struck advertising deals with the companies, plastering their logos all over stadiums. And while the NFL may not own direct shares in the sites, powerful team owners Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft do. The aide believed the NFL was having it both ways, to the tune of millions of dollars in ad revenue. As Hogan parried and deflected, he grew only more frustrated. "She didn't want to engage," he'd say later. "She just kicked the can down the road."

Kicking the can down the road would seem to suit the NFL's interests well. After all, on daily fantasy, the league is walking a tightrope: While privately lobbying Congress to maintain the status quo, Hogan says in public that she has no problem with potential congressional hearings. And even as she has worked behind the scenes to keep Goodell out of any potential hearings, publicly she's simply insisted that she doesn't "know what we would add." The goal, of course, is to keep the NFL as far away from the daily fantasy mess as possible.

Despite the league's longtime opposition to sports betting, Hogan does seem more willing than any NFL official has ever been to consider a future where it could be legalized.

When asked about the NFL's experience playing games in London, where sports books are legal, Hogan acknowledges that "regulators in the U.K. believe legalizing and regulating gambling serves the integrity of the sport better," adding, "that's something frankly we should take a look at, if we can be convinced that's a better way to support the integrity of the game."

Nobody in the NFL's front offices -- Roger Goodell least among them -- has said anything remotely that candid. (NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says the NFL is not considering a change to its anti-gambling stance.) But it's no accident that Hogan's tendency toward real talk runs opposite to Goodell's. Her statement could have been a slipup, but it just as easily could have been a calculated trial balloon, meant to pave the way for her boss' potential movement on the issue. In either case, as the accessible face of the NFL in D.C., Hogan is capable of pulling off that type of maneuver in ways Goodell isn't.

Her charisma gives her the classic lobbyist's gift: an ability to make almost any argument sound convincing. On the topic of daily fantasy, she says that if DraftKings and FanDuel are banished, "it's not a huge hit for us." Of course, Hogan's flippancy runs counter to her efforts to help protect the industry. The sites drive interest in the league's product, and while the end of daily fantasy would hardly blow up the NFL's bottom line, teams -- especially the 28 who have deals with the companies -- would certainly be affected.

Which is why Cynthia Hogan and her colleagues will keep walking that tightrope through Capitol Hill, insisting that while sports gambling should remain illegal, the daily fantasy industry should be allowed to blossom. Without doubt, Pallone, Blumenthal and their like-minded allies will press on. Hogan would rather, of course, that they go pass a budget deal, or fund a highway, or do whatever it is they do in Congress when they're not probing the National Football League and its billion-dollar business partners. "A typical lobbyist has things that they want," she says. "We don't really have anything we want." Except, that is, to be left alone.

Comments