Revealed: Congressional staffers wined and dined by NFL at 2023 draft as lawmakers scrutinize pro football
The health of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest during a 2022 game, is one of many football-related issues that has caught Congress' attention in recent years. (AFP)

The 2023 NFL Draft was filled with nationally televised pomp, pageantry and scores of young athletes about to become millionaires.

But behind the scenes, nearly a dozen other power players — from Congress — attended the draft as expenses-paid guests of the NFL, according to U.S. House records reviewed by Raw Story.

Records from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ethics, reviewed by Raw Story, showed that the league paid for high-ranking congressional staff members to travel to Kansas City, site of the draft. The league called it a “Government Affairs Congressional Forum.”

The attendees, according to the agenda, included Brandon Casey, staff director of the House Ways and Means Committee, and David Brewer, deputy staff director of the House Judiciary Committee. Drew Sachse, senior advisor to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who was listed on the agenda an a participant, did not attend, a spokesperson for Jeffries' office said.

A trip disclosure document submitted Friday to Congress by Brewer, and authorized by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), indicated the NFL paid $927 to cover Brewer’s travel, lodging and meal expenses.

The congressional junket follows recent congressional investigations into various aspects of the NFL’s operations and interests, from front-office workplace culture to gambling to player concussions.

According to the forum agenda reviewed by Raw Story, attendees arrived in Kansas City on the morning of April 27 and had nine sessions with various NFL executives including Executive Vice President Jeff Miller, Vice President for Events Strategy Matthew Shapiro, Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Government Affairs Brendon Slack.

The first session focused on a topic of keen interest to league owners: taxpayer-financed stadiums.

The session, titled “Stadium Construction and Municipal Bonds,” touted “federal-tax-exempt bonds as a tool to promote economic development at the local level that allow state and local governments low-cost financing for community economic development projects.”

Economists have long disputed what leagues have said would be the public financial benefits of a new stadium. A research paper out today by Robert Baumann of College of the Holy Cross and John Charles Bradbury of Kennesaw State University, states in its abstract that “researchers have demonstrated conclusively that sports stadiums are not economic development catalysts.”

The agenda billed an afternoon session titled “Legalized Sports Betting” as a “discussion of efforts by Congress and the Department of Justice to identify and pursue illegal offshore sportsbooks that continue to subvert the legal U.S. betting market, and how the NFL protects consumers and ensures the integrity of the game.”

The NFL has promotional deals with legal gambling operators DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Entertainment that the Associated Press said could be worth $1 billion over five years.

Another session promoted the economic benefits of cities’ playing host to the league events such as the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl and the Draft.

The congressional staffers’ trips were permissible under U.S. House rules.

But House Committee on Ethics Chairman Michael Guest (R-MS) and Ranking Member Susan Wild (D-PA), writing to Brewer in an April 26 letter, reminded him that he could only “participate in officially-connected activity on one calendar day” because the NFL employs federal lobbyists.

The NFL, Casey and Brewer, did not immediately return requests for comment. Sachse referred the inquiry to a communications staff member, who did not immediately respond to questions.

Touring the ‘draft theater’

Among the other sessions featured on the NFL’s Draft Day agenda for congressional staffers was a gathering that offered “insight on how the league’s tentpole events … benefit and support communities throughout the United States, nationally and locally. NFL tentpole events, such as the Draft, brings thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity to a local economy.

“Additionally, this economic activity generates new Government revenue that would not otherwise be realized if not for the league Event,” the description continued.

Economists have also disputed the public economic benefit from major sports events.

The league had other issues to address as well with the congressional staffers, including player health and safety.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin nearly died after collapsing on the field of a nationally televised game in January. He suffered cardiac arrest and medical personnel kept him alive by performing CPR.

The league has also paid hundreds of millions to settle lawsuits pertaining to the long-term effects of head injuries.

The presentation to congressional staff members had a predictably upbeat tone, according to the agenda. Those present would learn “how the league uses technology and resources to protect and advance player health and safety on gameday and beyond, including the league’s leading technology, techniques, rules, and policies that are designed to keep players safe.”

Then-U.S. Senate Majority Whip Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) (L) and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (R) participate in a news briefing after their meeting June 20, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Goodell was on the Hill to discuss bounties in professional sports. Alex Wong/Getty Images

After that session, the attendees received a tour of the “draft theater” where the first round of the draft was conducted that night.

In the afternoon, the league focused on the economic interests of its season ticket holders and other fans who sell their tickets on the secondary market for a profit. People who make more than $600 in one or more such transactions in 2023 have their revenue reported to the Internal Revenue Service. A year earlier, it was $20,000 minimum and 200 transactions.

The NFL led a discussion, according to the agenda, about “a permanent solution that would raise the threshold and reinstate a minimum level of transactions.”

The other sessions took up issues such as diversity; fan safety at games from drones; ticketing reforms; and draft eligibility for college players and college players using their name, image and likeness (NIL) for profit.

The congressional staffers’ visit ended with dinner at Arthur Bryant’s BBQ in Kansas City, according to an event agenda.

The other staffers listed on the agenda as attending: Eric Heighberger, oversight director for the House Homeland Security Committee; Tyler Grimm, chief counsel for policy and strategy for the House Judiciary Committee; Dante Cutrona, chief of staff for Rep. John Joyce (R-PA); Hayden Haynes, chief of staff for Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA); Billy Constangy, leadership chief of staff for Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC); Rachel Harris, chief of staff for Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ); James “Tres” Bernhard III, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA); and Sally Chen, senior member services adviser for the New Democrat Coalition.

The world’s richest sports league, the NFL has so far this year spent $350,000 lobbying the federal government, according to nonpartisan research organization OpenSecrets. During a typical calendar year, the NFL will spend between $1 million and $1.7 million lobbying the federal government, targeting issues that range from broadcasting and gambling to labor policy and player health. During the 2021-2022 election cycle, the NFL’s political action committee, Gridiron-PAC, separately spent almost $800,000 on political campaign donations.