The Influence Game: NFL Hires Washington Lobbyist

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Politics has always been a contact sport, and the National Football League is suiting up for the game.

Worried about unwelcome attention from Congress, the NFL has established a Washington office in the last year, hired a full-time lobbyist and created a political action committee to make federal campaign donations. The league is concerned that if a work stoppage affects the 2011 season it will draw unwanted interest from lawmakers.

The NFL also is facing more immediate controversies from how games are broadcast to whether a ban on Internet gambling on games should be continued.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, the son of a former New York Republican congressman and senator, orchestrated the Washington blitz after talking with owners on the league's legislative committee three years ago. That committee was making a presentation to the owners on Tuesday at the NFL's annual meeting in California.

"I agreed with those who told me that during these changing times in Washington, the league should have full-time representation there like so many other business and entertainment organizations that have issues on the Hill," Goodell told The Associated Press in a statement.

Coincidentally or not, the NFL player's union last week chose Washington lawyer DeMaurice Smith as its new executive director, replacing the late Gene Upshaw, who had predicted a lockout. Smith served on the Obama transition team and previously worked for Eric Holder, who is the nation's attorney general.

Washington Redskins safety Fred Smoot said he thinks Smith's connections will come in handy if Congress gets involved in an NFL work stoppage.

"He knows all the steps to take, and I think we made a very smart decision on that," Smoot said during a recent visit to Capitol Hill to lobby for a fitness bill.

The NFL hired Capitol Hill veteran Jeff Miller, 38, to serve as its in-house lobbyist. Miller spent eight years as an aide to Sen. Herb Kohl, most recently as chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, which Kohl chairs. Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, owns the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team.

"I'm a lifelong NFL fan, grew up in Wisconsin, rooted for the Packers at my father's knee every Sunday," Miller told The AP in his first interview since taking the job. "I had had opportunities in the past to leave the Hill and do other things, such as work at a law firm and lobby firm. But when the NFL calls, you can't turn that down."

Among his tasks: Leading the effort among major sports leagues to protect a ban on Internet gambling, which some members of Congress want to overturn.

"We want to maintain the integrity of the game, and gambling threatens that," he said.

Miller said the league will also be watching as Congress renews satellite broadcasting legislation. The NFL must respond to any changes, Miller said, "because so much of our business is finding the most fan-friendly way to get our games to the people who want to watch them."

Members of Congress have criticized some of the NFL's broadcasting policies. Last year, for example, 13 senators wrote to Goodell, asking him to make NFL Network games available to more fans on free television. The league has said it provides free broadcasts in the home cities of competing teams, but the senators argued that the NFL too narrowly interprets "home markets."

Prior to Miller's hiring, the NFL outsourced its Washington work to outside lobbyists, and has continued to do that on some issues.

"The emphasis is to have a full-time person spending every waking moment thinking about how what Congress or the administration is doing is going to affect the NFL's business model," Miller said.

Miller's operation is overseen by NFL vice president Joe Browne, who is based at league headquarters in New York. In a phone interview, Browne said the league looked around, and saw that other entertainment businesses and sports had full-time Washington operations. Major League Baseball, for example, brought on a full-time lobbyist in 2000.

"It was time for us to come into the 21st century," Browne said. He pointed out that Goodell, given his political lineage - his father was Charles Goodell, who served in the House in the 1960s and the Senate from 1968-71, "appreciates the role that Congress plays perhaps more than some do."

Browne coined the name of the NFL's new "Gridiron PAC," which raised $313,000 through the end of last year, the most recent reporting period. Donors included NFL officials such as Goodell, as well as owners and executives of all but two of the league's 32 teams. The only holdouts: the Oakland Raiders, owned by longtime league nemesis Al Davis, and the Cleveland Browns. Neither team returned telephone messages seeking comment.

The PAC's first campaign donations will show up in quarterly disclosures next month.

Browne said the prospect of labor troubles wasn't a factor in establishing the PAC and the Washington office, noting that over the years, the league and the union have come before Congress together to work for common goals. But the NFL's long history of labor peace is in jeopardy; last year, the owners voted to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2011, raising the possibility of a work stoppage in two years.

If baseball's experience with the 1994-95 strike is any indication, the NFL could be in for some unfriendly reaction on Capitol Hill. Several lawmakers introduced legislation to take away MLB's coveted antitrust exemption after the 232-day strike wiped out the 1994 World Series.

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