Iowa Native Helping Shape Public Policy For NFL

By Douglas Miles
The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

As far back as her earliest days in the southern Iowa town of Chariton, Nicole Gustafson was resolute about her desired choice of profession.

Blessed with an early command of the language and a delivery equal parts consistent and persistent, Gustafson confidently scribbled her career choice on one of those “What do you want to be when you grow up?” preschool assignments.

“I think it was because of my parents,” Gustafson said with a laugh. “I would argue with them a lot. They always told me that I should put that to good use and become a lawyer.”

Gustafson — who turns 38 on New Year’s Day — has made good on that childhood declaration. After earning a law degree from the University Iowa and buoyed by the state’s grand exposure to politics, Gustafson set out for Washington, D.C., where she served 11 years as counsel in both the legislature and judiciary for a host of Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Now, Gustafson finds herself branched out a bit from Capitol Hill into another realm — the National Football League.

“I don’t know that I want to leave the Hill, but it’s the NFL,” Gustafson recalled thinking at the time.

Gustafson is the NFL’s vice president for public policy and government affairs, a department tasked with developing the league’s public policy and legislative strategy in addition to assisting the individual franchises with local and state topics. Gustafson joined the three-person department 10 months ago under the direction of Cynthia Hogan, a former aide to Vice President Joe Biden with whom she became familiar with while helping reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act two years ago.

“I’ve dealt with such a wide variety of issues,” Gustafson said. “It’s a lot like being on the Hill. People would ask, ‘What’s your typical day like?’ There’s no such thing.”

The unpredictability came as no surprise given the array of significant league issues that has piqued the interest of lawmakers. Player safety, the league’s tax status, domestic violence, fantasy football, performance-enhancing drugs and broadcasting and television rights are just a few hot-button issues requiring skillful communicators to ensure misinformation is quickly dispelled and facts are at the forefront.

“We try to be proactive in updating the Hill on anything that we’re working on,” Gustafson said. “We will send updates to the Hill proactively and put together fact sheets for them so that they know the actual facts. Then we follow up on that and whether it’s that there’s an issue pending or we just want to make sure that people know in case an issue does start to become hot.”

While her department typically employs an all-hands-on-deck approach, Gustafson has spent significant time clarifying the league’s involvement — or lack thereof — with daily fantasy football websites like FanDuel and DraftKings. The popular websites, which undertook an aggressive advertising campaign throughout the football season offering fans the ability to compete in single-day online games for cash and prizes, was declared illegal gambling last week by the Illinois attorney general, the second state to do so.

“A lot of people have this assumption that, ‘Oh, a lot of people play fantasy football. The NFL must be involved,'” Gustafson said. “So it’s my job to go and explain to them that we don’t have any cash-in, cash-out games. We don’t have daily games. We don’t have any equity stake in the daily fantasy operators. Even the broadcast money, the advertisements that you see on TV, doesn’t come to us.”

The NFL has also been intensely scrutinized for its handling of domestic violence incidents involving players such as Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. Since these players committed offenses before the league significantly strengthened its personal conduct policy a year ago, players have been able to return to the field quicker than the new baseline suspensions.

“So you see sometimes — and people have been frustrated with us — is that you’ve got this personal conduct policy in place but this guy only gets suspended for ‘X’ number of games,” Gustafson said. “In reality, we suspended them for more. The Players’ Association then took that case to court and because the personal conduct policy wasn’t in place at the time, that suspension gets reduced.”

In only her second month on the job, Gustafson witnessed a significant shift in league policy when the NFL decided to drop its tax-exempt status. For years the NFL maintained it was not formally a business, but instead a not-for-profit organization. As revenue projections for 2015 approached $12 billion, public criticism continued to mount, even though the profits were distributed amongst 32 tax-paying franchises. A savings of $10 million per year was deemed no longer worth the negative public perception.

“That is something we were getting hit on for a lot,” Gustafson said. “We realized that this doesn’t make all that big a fiscal difference to us. Why don’t we go ahead and take the proactive step of changing it? We did that, and you still have people say, ‘Yep, but the NFL is a non-profit.’ We gave up our designation. Making sure people know about the things you’ve done is just as big a job as doing them.”

As she nears the completion of her first year on the job, Gustafson is pleased with the progress being made in player safety. The league has adopted nearly 40 rules changes and continues to fund technological improvements with its equipment in hopes of making the game safer.

“It’s amazing to me the breadth of the issues that we’re dealing with through the lens of football,” Gustafson said.

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