UPDATE: NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy emails:
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.
(Read the letter that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, sent the NFL in the embedded viewer below this story.)
Under pressure to promote President Obama’s health care law, the administration is in talks with the National Football League to form a marketing partnership during the upcoming season. The Department of Health and Human Services has reached out to the NFL – along with the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball – in hopes of reaching a key demographic of younger Americans. It would be a big mistake for any sports league to inject itself into the contentious political battle over Obamacare, but I’d like to just focus on the NFL for now.
Back in late 2009 and early 2010, covering the legislative battle over Obamacare was an around-the-clock endeavor, and watching football on Sundays was one of the few breaks I’d get from a very emotional partisan and ideological struggle. Following my New York Jets as they made an unlikely run to the AFC championship (before predictably losing) was a welcome respite from the political world. Though most Americans aren’t quite as actively involved with politics as those of us in Washington, football does serve as an oasis for tens of millions of Americans – one of the last remaining vestiges of American life that is mostly free of partisan politics. (Other than occasional outbursts such as Bob Costas’s decision to hijack an NFL broadcast to push gun control.) In a world where movies, national tragedies, natural disasters, and pretty much everything else becomes completely infected by partisan politics, football season offers its fans a great distraction.
Going to a stadium or a sports bar during football season is in its own way, a truly beautiful thing, drawing together people from different races, classes, and ideological backgrounds. If I’m watching a Jets’ game with strangers at a bar, we can join in our frustration, scream at the refs over bad calls, grimace at penalties, facepalm over interceptions and high-five each other in the rare instances our team gives us something to cheer about, without knowing or caring who each other voted for in the last election.
But joining a marketing partnership to promote Obamacare would put the NFL right smack in the middle of one of the most bitter partisan struggles in modern history in the run-up to the 2014 elections in which the issue is going to play a major starring role.
Also, what kind of precedent would it set? What if a future Republican president wants to enlist the NFL to promote his or her agenda? If the NFL says no, it will cause outraged conservatives to grumble that the league is biased against them. If it agrees, then it will anger liberals. Does the NFL really want to open this can of worms?
If individual players want to promote the law on their own time, they have the right to do so, just as liberal groups have the right to take out paid ads during games. But it’s a totally different story if the NFL enters into a formal marketing partnership with the administration.
Proponents of the law also note that Massachusetts enlisted the aid of the Boston Red Sox when implementing a similar health care law in 2007. But again, this is an isolated instance in a given market, not league-wide policy. (Also, as a conservative New York Yankees fan, my position is that the Red Sox and government-run health care kind of deserve each other.)
According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 43 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Obamacare compared with just 35 percent who have a favorable view. This suggests that if the NFL goes through with a marketing partnership, it would be alienating a lot of its fans, especially in parts of the country where the law is even more unpopular than the national average. On the other hand, if the league doesn’t enter into a partnership, it will go largely unnoticed by the fan base, and would only rankle a very small number of the law’s supporters who are following every minor detail of the law’s implementation.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that the NFL, “in the conversations I’ve had, has been very actively and enthusiastically engaged because they see health promotion as one of the things that is good for them and good for the country.” The league has not yet returned an email seeking comment, but has told the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes that “we have made no commitments nor discussed any details with the administration … We are in the process of clarifying what it is the administration would ask of us.” [The NFL has responded to the Washington Examiner. See the league's response at the beginning of this story.]
If the NFL wants to promote public health, it has plenty of opportunities to do so by partnering with non-controversial and apolitical causes like promoting cancer research, just as it has long partnered with the United Way.
NFL provides a real service to its fans when it serves as escapist entertainment untainted by partisan politics. Diving into the middle of the Obamacare debate firmly on the side of the Democratic Party would be a great disservice to America. Can’t I just watch another disastrous Jets’ season in peace?