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Political lobbying and sports

This is an excerpt from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Sport by Ellen J. Staurowsky & Algerian Hart.

Behind the scenes, sport executives and administrators know they need to follow what happens in the political arena, not only the passage of laws, but also relevant court decisions and topics that public policy makers want to study on behalf of constituencies. An issue like the unsafe playing conditions in football, for example, is often brought to the attention of the American public and lawmakers by the mobilization of media, constituent outreach to legislators, and the work of groups like the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Founded by Dr. Christopher Nowinski, a former college football player and professional wrestler, the Concussion Legacy Foundation has supported research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players and other athletes, developed educational programs to create more awareness about concussive and subconcussive hits on the health and well-being of athletes, and created public policy proposals to make sport safer. Please see the Sport Industry Leader Profile for more information about Dr. Chris Nowinski.

As indicated earlier in the chapter, there is a large public investment in sport. At times, sport organizations seek assistance to have laws passed or amended that benefit their businesses; at other times the business practices sport organizations engage in may be exploitative or illegal, warranting government scrutiny. As a result, professional and college sport organizations hire lobbyists who are paid to educate politicians about issues and to advance legislative agendas that are favorable to their businesses.

According to Open Secrets, a group that tracks the money organizations spend to influence policy and elections, nearly $10 million was spent in 2020 on lobbying in the area of recreation. Organizations that qualify in that category are diverse, ranging from the Academy of Model Aeronautics to the Professional Golf Association to SeaWorld Entertainment. While the NFL appeared to lead spending in 2020 at $1,290,000, the combined spending of the NCAA, major college conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, and Southeastern Conference), and major college football championship organizations (College Football Playoff, Bowl Championship Series) was nearly twice as much as the NFL ($2,430,000) (Open Secrets, 2020).

In the case of college sport, which is aligned with the education sector, additional lobbying efforts may occur through national and state higher education associations. Further, in 2015, after the Northwestern football team signed union cards, the Division I athletic directors’ association rebranded under the name of LEAD1 Association and hired Tom McMillen, a former professional basketball player who had served in Congress, to lobby for its own interests against college football players (Staurowsky, 2016). According to LEAD1, its mission is to influence how the rules of college sport are enacted and implemented. Representing 130 Division I athletic directors in the NCAA’s top football playing tier of schools known as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), LEAD1 organizes an annual meeting of its members every September in Washington, DC, using the occasion to brief lawmakers about its concerns. Emblematic of the power of soft influence, LEAD1 has hosted congressional luncheons on the Hill during its annual meeting. In 2017, at its first congressional luncheon, LEAD1 honored more than 50 members of Congress who were former college athletes, and in 2018, it ran a contest naming the top 25 former college athletes who were serving as congressional staffers (LEAD1 Association, 2018).

One of the reasons college sport entities spend so much money on lobbying efforts is the name, image, and likeness (NIL) issue. As lengthy legal battles over the NCAA’s restrictive rules had been playing out in the judicial system without a response from the NCAA, a bill called the Fair Pay to Play Act passed in California in September of 2019. The bill allowed college athletes in California to receive compensation for endorsement deals under certain terms and conditions, along with allowing athletes representation to help them make those deals. As the NCAA delayed making a decision regarding whether it would relax its rule barring athletes from being able to earn money from such promotional activities as working at summer camps, signing autographs, making appearances at certain types of events, and promoting clothing lines and other products, similar bills were introduced in 37 states and eight federal-level bills pertaining to college athlete compensation were introduced in the U.S. Congress (as of July 6, 2021). Of the 37 state bills, 21 were passed (Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, 2021).

Although each of the state laws regarding athlete compensation from use of their NIL have their own particular nuances, they include

  • provisions for athletes to seek licensed, professional representation (agents),
  • stipulations that prevent athletes from entering into contracts that are in conflict with agreements with an existing athletic team or department contract (such as a team contract with Nike, for example), and
  • requirements that athletes report contracts they have entered into with a designated person on their campus.

Some of the laws also provide that schools and athletic departments are prevented from reducing or revoking an athlete’s scholarship as a result of an athlete earning compensation from an NIL contract and from contracts that limit the ability of an athlete to use their NIL for commercial purposes (Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, 2021). As the first of the state NIL laws went into effect in late June and early July of 2021, the NCAA passed an interim NIL policy, which directs athletes to abide by their state laws and to seek advice from their institutions. It also states that NIL opportunities cannot be used to induce recruits to attend one school over another (Hosick, 2021). As college athletes continue to push for more change, they are facing the reality that they need to strengthen their own voice to counter the lobbying efforts of established college organizations that represent institutions and administrators, organizations like the NCAA, the conferences, and professional associations like LEAD1. While the National College Players Association has served that role (see chapter 9), a new organization created by current and former athletes called United College Athlete Advocates has emerged to help athletes organize (see Sport Industry Diversity Initiative sidebar).