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By:  Francis Baker on July 24, 2013

After further review, the NFL opted to defer any support to the Obama administration for the promotion of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).  Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Kathleen Sebelius told reporters in June that HHS was attempting to enlist the aid of professional sports leagues like the NFL and MLB in order to help them implement the controversial 2010 health care [1]  Those hopes were dashed on June 28, when a spokesman for the NFL told The Washington Post that it had “no plans to engage in this area.”[2]

 

The decision is the most recent setback in the administration’s uphill battle to implement the new health care law.  A key provision of the ACA requires that all adults carry health insurance or pay a $95 tax penalty.[3]  In order to help people who don’t have insurance through their employers acquire coverage, the ACA sets up exchanges where people can purchase health insurance.  Unfortunately, the acrimony surrounding the passage of the law, as well as the subsequent legal challenges, have left many Americans unaware of whether the ACA is even law still.[4]  In this climate of confusion, the administration is tasked with informing the public about the ACA and how citizens can comply with it.

 

Given this monumental task, it’s easy to see why the NFL and other sports leagues would have been a logical ally for the administration to entreat.  Most of the folks who watch NFL games are young, healthy males – a demographic that generally does not carry health insurance.  Getting these young and healthy individuals to purchase health insurance would expand the risk pool considerably, helping keep costs down.  For this reason, the administration is understandably keen on getting them insured.[5]
The partnership was also attractive to the administration for several other reasons.  The NFL season tracks well with the open-enrollment period for the exchanges, running from October 2013 to March 2014.  Furthermore, partnering with the NFL and other sports leagues would have been cost-effective.  Ad campaigns like the one needed to promote compliance with the ACA cost a substantial amount of money.  But piggybacking on the already extensive media coverage of pro sports would have directly targeted a key demographic at a fraction of the cost.[6]

 

The administration also had good reason to believe that a sports partnership would work because Massachusetts executed the same strategy successfully seven years ago with their own health care reform implementation.  In 2006, Massachusetts passed health care reform requiring that all adults have health insurance, much like the ACA.  The Health Connector, Massachusetts’s online insurance marketplace, teamed up with the Boston Red Sox to help promote the new law.  The Sox sold advertisements in game-time guides and pitcher Tim Wakefield even made a public service announcement encouraging fans to visit the Health Connector website.[7]

 

Additionally, the NFL has helped promote certain health issues in the past.  Since 2009, the NFL has partnered with the American Cancer Society during the month of October to help promote breast cancer awareness.  All month, players wear pink gear, which is later auctioned off.  A portion of the proceeds from the auction, as well as sales from jerseys, is donated to raise money for breast-cancer research.[8]

 

However, unlike breast-cancer awareness and research, which enjoys universal support, the ACA is still extremely divisive. This was made clear when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Whip John Cornyn sent a letter to the commissioners of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, PGA and the chairman and chief executive officer of NASCAR, discouraging them from lending their support to the law: “Given the divisiveness and persistent unpopularity of the health care [law], it is difficult to understand why an organization like yours would risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand by lending its name to its promotion,” they wrote.[9]  McConnell and Cornyn also distinguished this proposed partnership with the partnership undertaken by Massachusetts in 2006, arguing that the Massachusetts law was bi-partisan and enjoyed popular support, unlike the ACA.[10]

 

It is unclear how the NFL’s decision not to promote Obamacare will impact the plans of individual states to enlist the help of hometown teams in complying with the ACA.  Both Illinois and Washington have expressed interest in reaching out to their local teams to help encourage their states’ residents to purchase healthcare on the exchanges.[11]  But if the league as a whole declines to wade into the federal implementation of the ACA, this could preclude individual teams from helping their hometowns implement the law as well.

Meanwhile spokesmen for the MLB and NHL have both stated that the administration has recently canceled meetings that they had scheduled with the leagues.[12]  The administration also reportedly reached out to the NBA in June, but so far there has been no word whether they, or any other sports organization, have agreed to be a standard bearer for the health care law.[13]

If nothing else, this ill-fated partnership between the administration and the NFL raises interesting questions about the relationship between politics and professional sports.  But for now, it seems that the NFL is going to stay on the sidelines when faced with legislation as politically charged as the ACA.

 

 


[1] See Sandhya Somashekhar, NFL, MLB Could Help Kick-Off Promotion of New Health-Care Coverage, Wash. Post (June 24, 2013), http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/nfl-mlb-could-help-kick-off-promotion-of-new-health-care-coverage/2013/06/24/dc9fbbf4-dcf3-11e2-9218-bc2ac7cd44e2_story.html (reporting that HHS was hoping to recruit sports leagues to help them promote Affordable Care Act).

[2] See Sandhya Somashekhar & Lenny Burstein, NFL Says No to Promoting Obamacare, Wash. Post (June 28, 2013), http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/nfl-says-no-to-promoting-obamacare/2013/06/28/1d02af1e-e026-11e2-b2d4-ea6d8f477a01_story.html (reporting that NFL is no longer considering HHS’s proposal to promote ACA).

[3] See Somashekhar, supra note 1 (describing penalty for non-compliance with ACA mandate to carry health insurance).

[4] See Kaiser Health Tracking Poll: June 2013, Kaiser Family Foundation (June 19, 2013), http://kff.org/health-reform/poll-finding/kaiser-health-tracking-poll-june-2013/ (reporting that only one in five Americans had heard about exchanges); see also Kaiser Health Tracking Poll: April 2013, Kaiser Family Foundation (Apr. 30, 2013), http://kff.org/health-reform/poll-finding/kaiser-health-tracking-poll-april-2013/ (reporting that as of April 2013, four in ten American were not even aware that ACC had become law).  Problematically, confusion over the status of the ACA was higher among individuals whom the law was specifically designed to help.  See id. (revealing “six in ten of those in households making less than $30,000 a year are unable to say the law is still in force, as are half of younger Americans”).

 

[5] See Catherine Hollander, Can the NFL Help Sell Obamacare?, National Journal (June 27, 2013, 8:10 PM), http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/can-the-nfl-help-sell-obamacare-20130627 (noting that NFL’s fan base and HHS’s target demographic coincide).

[6] See id. (highlighting timing and financial benefits of partnership with NFL).

[7] See id. (summarizing Massachusetts’s experiment to partner with Boston Red Sox in 2006 to promote compliance with their health care reform law).

[8] See Somashekhar & Burstein, supra note 2 (noting that NFL has historically promoted some health care issues such as breast cancer awareness).

[9] Jennifer Haberkorn, Mitch McConnell Asks Pro Sports to Stay Away from Obamacare Promotion, Politico (June 29, 2013, 10:00 PM), http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/mitch-mcconnell-asks-pro-sports-to-stay-away-from-obamacare-promotion-93572.html.

[10] See id. (pointing out that McConnell and Cornyn specifically distinguished HHS’s current partnership proposal with that of Massachusetts in 2006).

[11] See Jason Millman, Recruiting Local Teams for Team Obamacare, Politico (June 27, 2013, 5:13 AM), http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/obamacare-sports-teams-health-insurance-93471.html (recounting that at least two states, Illinois and Washington, were hoping to get local sports teams to help them with their implementation of ACA).

[12] See Somashekhar & Burstein, supra note 2 (reporting that meetings between HHS and other sports leagues have been canceled).

[13] See Kyle Cheney, White House Seeks NBA Assist on Obamacare, Politico (June 19, 2013, 5:06 AM), http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/white-house-nba-obamacare-lebron-james-93014.html (describing how HHS also reached out to NBA to help promote ACA, but that NBA has not yet responded with decision).

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