The Obama administration has learned a lesson already obvious to other sports leagues, corporations and fans: One does not simply tell the NFL what to do.
Like Tim Tebow facing the Ravens' defense, the administration's Department of Health and Human Services began a hopeful attempt at a partnership that was quickly crushed and swallowed. HHS is tasked with promoting the administration's new health insurance plans and encouraging Americans to sign up for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dubbed "Obamaare." As part of that initiative, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius reported that the department has been "very actively and enthusiastically engaged" in discussions with the NFL and NBA.
Interesting, then, that the NFL responded a few days later with this statement: "We have responded to the letters we received from members of Congress to inform them we currently have no plans to engage in this area and have had no substantive contact with the administration about PPACA's implementation."
On its face, promotion of "Obamacare" seemed a curious stance for the NFL to take. Poll after poll – 44 of 46 in the last year, according to Real Clear Politics – has shown Americans oppose "Obamacare." For a league interested in appealing to the widest possible fan base, aligning with one political point of view – any point of view – would effectively tick off up to half your audience.
Dan Kaplan, NFL reporter for Sports Business journal, noted that there was no precedent in the NFL for any kind of political involvement, particularly such a "sensitive" issue. The NFL and other leagues have preferred to remain politically agnostic, supporting social causes such as literacy, cancer research and youth exercise without overt political angles.
"The league, though, could work with networks to open up ad spots to promote the health plan, keeping a distance in that way," Kaplan said. "Those ads would not be free, clearly, though."
Politics and sports are inextricable, as the Jason Collins saga demonstrated earlier this year. Any enterprise that cuts across such a wide swath of American society can't help but be co-opted for political and opinionated purposes. It's why the sitting president always invites championship teams to the White House, and why campaigning candidates always don awkwardly fitting caps of the local team. Anything to align with a winner.
But there's a vocal segment of fans that would prefer to keep the politics as far from sports as possible. Nowhere was this more apparent in recent months than in the wake of the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, in which Bob Costas raised the topic of gun control during his halftime commentary on Sunday Night Football. Quoting liberally (so to speak) from a column by Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock, Costas chided the culture of gun violence in a tone that struck many viewers as condescending. Whether or not Costas was actually advocating for gun control – he later "clarified" his comments to express support for the 2nd Amendment – the entire episode demonstrated the perils of introducing politics into sports.
More recently, Texas Motor Speedway aligned with the NRA for an April Sprint Cup Series race. While the NRA and NASCAR would appear, on the surface, a hand-in-glove political fit, the NRA has come under severe criticism for its steadfast opposition to any form of gun regulation even as public gun violence persists in headlines. The race went off with a minimum of serious protest, and some could argue that no publicity is bad publicity. It's important to note, however, that neither the Costas nor the NRA incidents involved the leagues themselves.
Certainly, as popular as the NFL is, the league could advocate anything this side of puppy-kicking and still retain a significant segment of its viewership. But fans aren't the only consideration here. The NFL could have plenty of issues in front of Congress in coming sessions, from health and concussion concerns to ongoing antitrust matters. From the league's perspective, there's no advantage in riling up members of either party that could make life more difficult with the stroke of a pen.
Cynical? Yep. But that's politics. The NFL knows that game as well as the one between the goalposts.
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