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Super Bowl blues: Safety concerns set off lobbying scrimmage

by Keenan Steiner, Lindsay Young and Jake Harper

Updated: Feb. 2

America is settling in for this Super Bowl weekend against an unsettling backdrop of questions about football safety -- an issue that gained traction this week when, in an interview with The New Republic, First Fan Barack Obama raised doubts about whether parents should let their children play the sport.

That presidential play highlights an ongoing scrimmage on Capitol Hill between the helmet-making industry, which opposes federal regulations on the headgear, and interest groups who are pushing for them. The lobbying centers around a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in the last Congress that pushed for stronger youth helmet standards to prevent concussions and a crackdown on false advertising by the industry. Udall's office told Sunlight he is planning to introduce similar legislation again and on Friday, announced that the National Football League is endorsing it.

The issue: There is currently no standard for preventing concussions. The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment a non-profit body, has been criticized for not yet establishing one.

Neither the committee nor athletic equipment-makers think the federal government should step in. The Consumers Union and the National Football League’s Players Association say it should.

An analysis of federal lobbying records reveals that in the last session of Congress, a range of organizations and companies lobbying on Udall's bill, and companion legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., spent at least $5 million lobbying on this and other issues before Congress.

Even so, Udall claimed positive results. "As a result of our efforts, the FTC began scrutinizing marketing claims for products sold to young athletes to 'reduce the risk of concussions,’” the senator said in a statement.

Last year, sporting goods manufacturers, in conjunction with sports industry leaders like the NFL and federal health officials started a three-year program to replace youth football helmets that are more than 10 years old.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1.6 to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur each year; the president's comments about the risks to young football players underscore growing public awareness of the problem. That appears to have prompted a number of interest groups to increase their presence on Capitol Hill. 

After not having lobbied for more than a decade, Riddell, the biggest football helmet maker, spent more than $600,000 during the last session of Congress. Other large helmet makers, Schutt and Rawlings, have not recorded any lobbying expenditures, but the  Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), formerly the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, has been vigilant on the helmet safety bill.

SFIA President Tom Cove, who usually steers clear of direct lobbying, has been closely working with Udall’s office on legislation “because it’s so sensitive,” he said. “Our position is that the current standard setting bodies are actively engaged on this.” He favors a comprehensive approach to improving safety, including changing the rules of the game, better enforcement and increased public awareness.

“We don’t think legislation is the answer,” Cove said.The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, an industry-funded group that sets the standards for helmets used by professional, college and high school leagues, hired a D.C. lobbyist almost two years ago, its executive director Mike Oliver said. Oliver discussed the bill with a Udall aide as recently as three weeks ago.

None of the groups with major interests in the Udall/Pascrell bills -- the Committee on Standards, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association or the big helmet makers -- appear to have made campaign contributions to lawmakers’ campaigns . The only donations came from hired lobbyists but even those are relatively slim with the exception Riddell’s hired gun Kevin Curtin, the former chief counsel to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Curtin, who stopped lobbying for Riddell in September, has given $4,000 to committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. in recent years, whose panel held a hearing on sports concussions in 2011, according to Sunlight’s Influence Explorer

On the other hand, the National Football League -- which did not report any lobbying on the child helmet safety bill but clearly has an interest in any government regulation of athlete safety -- is a Capitol Hill heavy hitter. According to Sunlight's Influence Explorer, the NFL has spent nearly $11 million lobbying Congress since 1990; the league's employees have made more than $1.8 million in campaign contributions. 

The league has another source of appeal for some members: its games are ideal spots for big dollar fundraisers. Sunlight's Party Time database shows that politicians held more than 20 fundraisers at Redskins games at Fedex Field, while the League itself co-hosted a June 2012 fundraiser for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has been a frequent critic of college football's bowl system who also clashed with the NFL in 2008 over whether churches should be allowed to hold Super Bowl viewing parties.

Sporting goods makers insist they too want to improve helmet safety but they strongly oppose lawmakers'  proposed means of achieving that goal: giving the Consumer Product Safety Commission authority to override industry standards if, after a nine-month review, it finds them lacking. 

That legislative deadline is akin to saying: “Hey, create a cure for cancer,” says Oliver, who adds that the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment has been the largest nongovernment funder of concussion research since 1994. Figuring out how to prevent a concussion is very complex science, he said. The group’s current standard is based on preventing skull injuries, which protects against most concussions, Oliver said.

The Udall and Pascrell bills are not the only concussion-related legislation to hit Congress recently. Another Pascrell bill, which passed the House in 2010 but died in the Senate, would have created federal guidelines for preventing and treating concussions.

(Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps; Correction: Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is the sponsor of the helmet safety bill)