WASHINGTON — The National Football League's political offshoot handed out almost $600,000 in campaign cash in its rookie election cycle, building goodwill among lawmakers that could pay off during a looming dispute with the players union.
Meanwhile, some high-profile players, including Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Julius Peppers, Jason Taylor and Jonathan Vilma, made their own contributions on a smaller scale, Federal Election Commission records show.
The NFL's political action committee, "Gridiron PAC," gave overwhelmingly to incumbents, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. As of Sept. 30, the most recent filing, a majority of the donations went to Democrats, reflecting the PAC's tilt toward those currently in power. Republicans appear likely to take control of the House in Tuesday's elections.
The PAC donations, along with other individual contributions from owners and league executives, come against the backdrop of labor troubles. The NFL players union says it expects owners to impose a lockout next year and has been telling lawmakers they should be worried about the effect a canceled season would have on their communities.
The union wants Congress to use its leverage to help prevent a lockout. The NFL, by contrast, wants Congress to butt out.
"I think that even members of Congress who normally are pro-union scratch their heads in terms of what the union wants Congress to do," said Joe Browne, a senior adviser to commissioner Roger Goodell who was involved in starting the PAC. "Management believes that these are private negotiations, and we have not asked (Congress) members to do anything to help bring these negotiations to a conclusion."
Goodell, the son of a former New York Republican congressman and senator, has put a bigger emphasis on politics since becoming commissioner in 2006. Under his leadership, the league established the PAC, which started making donations last year, and opened up a full-time Washington lobbying office.
The NFL and Major League Baseball are the only sports leagues to have PACs, although others like the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association also lobby Congress. Federal government policy can affect sports on a host of issues, from immigration to intellectual property rights.
"Commissioner Goodell believes we have a responsibility to our owners and our employees to represent their interests the best we can in Washington," Browne said. "The interest that Congress has in the NFL is probably disproportionate to the size of our league, but in most cases that's a good thing. I'm not complaining."
But that attitude could change if the interest in America's most popular spectator sport turns into unwelcome attention, including hearings on the labor situation or legislation. Congress could, for example, target an antitrust exemption the NFL enjoys for broadcasting contracts. That exemption, which allows the NFL to sign TV contracts on behalf of all teams, helped to transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.
Under its new executive director, DeMaurice Smith, the union has also bulked up its Washington muscle. Smith hired a new lobbying firm to represent the union (Patton Boggs, the powerhouse Washington firm where he had been a partner); increased lobbying spending; and organized lobbying days for NFL players on Capitol Hill. He brings Washington expertise to the job, including stints with the Obama transition team, and before that, Eric Holder, now the nation's attorney general.
But unlike the league, the players do not have a political action committee, which allows corporations and unions to raise money and make campaign donations.
Union spokesman George Atallah said players have considered forming a PAC, but he doesn't think the union is at a disadvantage without one.
"Our goal is not to buy our way through Congress," he said. "We are very confident that members of Congress understand that this lockout is more than just players and owners. The lockout has an impact on jobs, the economy, local communities and municipal governments."
In addition to congressional leaders, NFL PAC recipients included the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees, which have oversight over the league in several areas, as well as the House and Senate campaign fundraising arms of both parties. Some donations were more familial than strategic — the PAC gave to two grandsons of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney — Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., and Brian Rooney, who lost a GOP congressional primary race in Michigan.
Several players have made individual donations, but they do not appear to be coordinated in a strategic way. Among them:
—Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback, gave $1,000 to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Manning played for the University of Tennessee.
—Brett Favre, quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, made a $2,400 donation to Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat who represents Favre's home district in southeast Mississippi.
—Julius Peppers, the Chicago Bears linebacker, donated $2,400 to Kevin Powell, a former MTV "Real World" star who mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge to Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y.
—Jonathan Vilma, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, gave $4,800 to Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Florida Democrat who represents Miami and is now running for a Florida Senate seat. Vilma played for the University of Miami.
—Jason Taylor, New York Jets defensive end and a former Miami Dolphin, also gave Meek $4,800, and donated $10,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Some head coaches made donations, too. Carolina Panthers coach John Fox gave $1,000 each to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and North Carolina GOP congressional candidate Harold Johnson. New Jersey Republican congressional candidate Jon Runyan, a recently retired offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers and several other teams, picked up $1,200 from Eagles coach Andy Reid and $1,000 from Chargers coach Norv Turner.
Goodell and other league officials donated money, as did owners and top officials from many teams. Houston Texans executives were particularly generous — owner Robert McNair gave around $100,000, including $55,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Texans vice chairman Philip Burguieres made about $50,000 in donations.