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

January 5, 2016, 1:18 PM

— -- 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."