The Big Game: Federal Government vs. the NFL

More than ever before, Congress and the White House are challenging football.

President Obama throws a football at Soldier Field in Chicago. (National Journal)

In recent months, politics and American football have been clashing increasingly often. Congress and the Obama administration have found themselves on the opposite side from the NFL over issues ranging from health concerns and doping to a team's racist name and the league's nonprofit status.

President Obama is the most recent entrant to the fray. Following a smattering of comments over the course of the two years that hinted at his concern over concussions in football, Obama brought together leaders of national sports leagues at the White House on Thursday for a Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit. At the event, the president announced numerous partnerships with sports organizations, including a $30 million program in conjunction with the NCAA and the Defense Department for concussion education, and a $25 million pledge from the NFL to fund a variety of strategies to reduce concussion rates. While the conference focused on the safety of young people, the NFL could be worried that future generations of pro football players (or their parents) might shy away from the sport in favor of safer pastimes.

Obama has remarked on safety in football before. Last year, he told The New Republic, "I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence." In a conversation with The New Yorker in January of this year, Obama said outright, "I would not let my son play pro football."

The complaints over safety aren't coming out of nowhere. In August 2013, under national scrutiny, the NFL settled a lawsuit brought against it by former players for $765 million. The sum will be applied toward medical exams and research, litigation expenses, and compensation for affected players.

Months after the lawsuit settled, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., introduced a bill to strip the NFL of its nonprofit status. Under current law, the league is exempt from taxes because it qualifies as a 501(c)(6) organization along with "business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, and boards of trade," according to the IRS. A feature in The Atlantic outlined the big-ticket costs that NFL teams pass on to taxpayers.

Most recently, the football team in Washington has been under fire for refusing to change a name that is a racist slur. A band of 50 Democratic senators came together to sign a letter sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., urging the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, to throw his weight behind a name change for the team.

On Thursday, the NFL tried to strike back with an ill-fated Twitter campaign. The official account of the Washington football team tweeted an attempt to rally support behind its name and send a clear message to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.:

ThinkProgress compiled some of the fallout that the communications team behind the tweet may not have anticipated, made up of replies that ranged from "obstinate ignorance" to "overt racism."

Once an escape from politics, football — the most popular sport in the U.S. for the 30th year running — is becoming increasingly tangled up with a Congress suffering from record-breaking low approval ratings. The pace only seems to be increasing: The government and the NFL may remain strange bedfellows for some time.