Don’t expect Congress to step in against the NFL
You’ve probably heard members of Congress speak out about how the NFL has handled – or mishandled – the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident, but the
You’ve probably heard members of Congress speak out about how the NFL has handled – or mishandled – the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident, but the likelihood of them taking any action beyond a hearing is a long shot.
Congressional reaction has ranged from letters sent to the head of the league, to legislation being introduced to take away certain privileges enjoyed by the NFL.
In a letter sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a bipartisan group of sixteen Senate women urged the league to institute a zero-tolerance policy.
In an op-ed for Time, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote, “Lawmakers must demand better, and taxpayers who support the League with their hard-earned money must do the same.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., took it a step further by introducing legislation that would eliminate the league’s tax-exempt status.
But what’s the likelihood legislation will actually be enacted?
Quite low, according to Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University, who says federal legislation usually benefits not restricts sports leagues. Where Congress is most likely to take action is through a congressional hearing, according to Mitten.
“It’s really an opportunity, [particularly in] an election year, for Congress … to get up and say look, this is not a good thing! And we’re demanding that action be taken! Or here’s the legislation I’m going to introduce, here’s what I’m going to try and do,” Mitten said.
This month, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called for a hearing in the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking member Elijah Cummings have agreed.
Keep in mind that Congress has several options to step in and take legal action against the NFL. Professional sports fall under the interstate commerce designation, which gives Congress the exclusive authority to regulate the league.
Congress has given the four major professional sports leagues a limited antitrust exemption, which allows the leagues to collectively sell and pool their television rights and divide the revenue, says Matt Parlow, a professor of law at the National Sports Law Institute.
It’s the largest single source of revenue for the NFL and one way for Congress to exert its authority. .
“So, Congress could potentially…limit or take away that antitrust exemption…if the NFL doesn’t and other leagues don’t develop what it thinks are appropriate domestic violence policies,” Mitten.
The NFL is also tax-exempt, meaning the league does not have to pay any income tax. One other option for Congress would be to remove the league’s federal tax exemption.
But Mitten and Parlow say they don’t think it’s likely that Congress will actually take any of these actions.
Parlow says that the NFL is working hard to keep any of these penalties from happening, signaling to Congress that, “We’ll take care of this, we’ll clean this up, because private associations don’t really want government intervention. The law favors them regulating themselves by their own rules and agreements.”
Another obstacle to potential Congressional action, says Mitten, is the NFL players union, which collectively bargains with the league to set wages, hours, working conditions and rules for off-field conduct.
Unilateral action by Congress would flout federal labor law and the union’s ability to collectively bargain, something Mitten doesn’t see happening anytime soon.
“I think it’s pretty unlikely that Congress would disrupt what federal labor law requires,” he says.
So the best option becomes a hearing. Mitten and Parlow say a hearing would put more pressure on the NFL to make changes that better deal with domestic violence, and could lead to greater transparency and scrutiny.
They point to the success of the 2005 hearings that dealt with steroid use by Major League Baseball players. No legislation was passed, but Congress ramped up the pressure on the MLB, ultimately resulting in major changes in how the league dealt with and punished steroid use.
(In DecodeDC’s latest episode of our “Exit Interview” series, host Andrea Seabrook sat down with the mastermind behind those hearings, Rep. Henry Waxman. You can listen here.)
Oddly enough, congressional action, they say, might slow down changes.
“It could actually delay leagues implementing things, because if they’re going to be called before Congress, they may not want to put policies in place until they hear from Congress what Congress might want,” Parlow said.
“My view is always when it comes to Congress regulating sports, the old adage ‘After all is said is done, more is said than done’, rings true,” Mitten said.