Super Bowl LI: A guide to pigskin politics

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Tom Brady, the quarterback of the NFL‘s New England Patriots, is no stranger to the limelight. Sunday’s Super Bowl LI (51) between his team and the Atlanta Falcons will mark his seventh appearance in football’s championship face-off; it could be his fifth victory.

opensecretsBrady has been linked to more controversial activities, as well, like the Deflategate controversy that resulted in a four-game suspension for the star. Nowadays, his relationship with President Donald Trump has been getting attention.

Still, while the two may be friends, Brady made no contributions to Trump’s presidential campaign. Well, not in the form of a check, at least; in Trump’s words during the campaign, “Tom Brady said Trump’s the greatest. He says it to anyone who asks him.” (Fact check: Brady seemed supportive of Trump, but walked that back after the video of Trump bragging about assaulting women surfaced. Brady later said, “I support all my friends. That is what I have to say. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s always been so supportive of me.”)

Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ coach, wrote a letter to Trump commending him for his campaign performance. But like Brady, he didn’t help fatten Trump’s coffers. (In response to questions about the letter, Belichick claimed that he’s “not a political person.”)

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, on the other hand, cannot deny being a political person, and mostly a Democratic one. Since 1989, the business tycoon and philanthropist has made over $396,000 in federal-level contributions. In the past three election cycles, 66 percent of his contributions have gone to Democratic candidates, party committees and outside spending groups, while just 2 percent went to Republicans. Another $25,000 went to the  NFL’s PAC.

Kraft’s son and the president of the Patriots, Jonathan Kraft, appears to be more conservative; he gave a combined $70,800 to the Republicans’ senatorial, congressional and national committees in 2012. Still, two of the three individual candidates he gave to in that cycle or since have been Dems — Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.) and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.).

Outdoing both the Kraft men is Patricia Kraft, Jonathan’s wife. She’s made $127,700 in political contributions from 2010-2016, with 88.1 percent of that going to Republicans. In 2013 she gave $5,200 to Warner, but has yet to go back to that side of the aisle.

If the Super Bowl were decided by team owners’ political contributions, the Falcons would no longer be underdogs. Arthur Blank, cofounder of The Home Depot and the Atlanta team’s owner, has given almost $147,000 to political candidates and groups since the 2012 cycle. Like Kraft, Blank has favored Democrats, giving their candidates, committees and outside groups close to 76 percent of his contributions. Both owners supported former President Barack Obama‘s bid for the White House; at the very least, they can agree on who should win some contests.

FEC records don’t show any contributions from current players for the Patriots or Falcons.

Big-league involvement

As for the NFL itself, the league’s involvement in politics and policy in Washington is significant. In the 2016 cycle, its PAC gave more than $624,000 to candidates; individuals employed by the organization gave another $50,000 or so. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received almost $12,000 from those individuals, but not a dollar from the league’s PAC. Trump failed to score at all.

Overall, 54.7 percent of the PAC’s gifts went to Republicans, while individuals gave 58.3 percent of their contributions to Democrats.

The $624,000 that Gridiron PAC spent on candidates is less than half what the league spent on lobbying in 2016 alone: More than $1.44 million. Covington & Burling got $370,000 of that; the law and lobbying firm’s other clients include NFL sponsors PepsiCo and Microsoft. The NFL Players Association spent $240,000 lobbying in 2016.

The NFL’s lobbying outlays spiked in 2016. Health issues were among its primary concerns — no surprise given the publicity surrounding player concussions. A variety of changes to practices, game rules and staffing have led to a 6.5 percent decline in the occurrence of concussions from 2012-2017; still, there have been 244 concussions in the 2016-2017 season, keeping that issue in the public eye.

The league’s image has also suffered from the actions of some of its players toward their spouses and girlfriends, leading to a congressional focus on domestic violence in football. Radio and TV broadcast rights are always an issue as well (there’s gold in that airtime).

And speaking of airtime, according to ad buyers, the average price of a 30-second advertisement during the Super Bowl has risen from $4.8 million last year to $5 million. (Anheuser-Busch InBev, another Covington & Burling client, will air four commercials during the big game.) The roughly $247,500,000 that Trump’s candidate committee raised for his presidential run would buy about 24.8 minutes of Super Bowl commercial time.

With his estimated net worth of $75 million, Commissioner Roger Goodell could buy 15 half-minute commercials. But Goodell has found other uses for his money, contributing almost $40,000 to candidates since 2011. Almost all of that has gone to Republicans or the NFL’s PAC.

And while contributing $2,700 to the presidential campaign of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) may not have been the most fruitful deployment of Goodell’s funds, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Goodell doesn’t leave this Sunday a winner.

The Super Bowl is expected to cost the hosting city of Houston about $5.5 million, but The Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, a nonprofit corporation, will foot the bill. And yes, there are political connections there, as well: The committee’s honorary chairman is James Baker III, who was White House chief of staff for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and served in their cabinets

Researcher Doug Weber contributed to this post.

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