In the summer when the sky was falling on the NFL and fans were buying pitchforks in bulk, Cynthia Hogan was in New York, interviewing with league officials for a job. They feared the headlines about domestic violence and the NFL’s bungling of the Ray Rice case might scare away their prized candidate, a veteran Washington attorney with experience in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
“They came to me — ‘Are you still willing to talk to us?’ ” Hogan recalled. “I said, ‘Actually, you’re more interesting to me now.’ ”
And so began one of the most unlikely marriages in football: a male-dominated professional sports league with deep-seated cultural issues, and Hogan, a former top aide to Vice President Biden who’d previously worked on the Hill and played a key role in passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.
Hogan studied art history as an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio and baseball was always her preferred sport. Now she’s running the NFL’s Washington operations, one of several people suddenly tapped with saving the league from itself.
“She’s the full package,” Biden said of Hogan, 57, who left the White House in 2013 and had been doing consulting work before the NFL called. “She can do it all.”
Her title at the NFL is senior vice president of public policy and government affairs. As the NFL’s top lobbyist, she’ll be the public face of the league in Washington on matters as diverse as broadcasting rights, the league’s tax-exempt status, on-field health and safety issues, performance-enhancing drugs and, as Hogan has found these past few weeks, concerns about NFL players’ actions away from the field.
“It’s clear what many, many offices want to talk about right now,” she said.
The league is still navigating its way through the mess created by the Rice case, which on Wednesday moves before a former federal judge in New York. The onetime Baltimore Ravens running back is appealing his indefinite suspension following release of a graphic video of him punching his fiancee in an Atlantic City casino elevator in February. There is also an independent investigation into the NFL’s handling of the Rice matter led by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III and a new player conduct policy on the horizon.
These days, Hogan shuttles back and forth from meetings on Capitol Hill to the NFL’s Federal Triangle office, just a few blocks from the White House, the one with Super Bowl posters decorating the walls.
“When I left the White House, I didn’t think I would ever have as big a platform to talk about and work on some of the issues I’m interested in,” she said. “What I’ve come to realize with the NFL, now I have a bigger platform.”
In a seven-day period in September that followed publication of the Rice elevator video on the Web site TMZ, the besieged league office went on a hiring spree, adding Hogan and a new chief marketing officer, retaining three outside domestic violence experts and promoting another staffer to the newly created position of vice president of social responsibility. All five were women.
The sincerity of the NFL’s moves was not met without some skepticism. “It’s hard not to be cynical about the NFL’s efforts,” wrote Slate, the online magazine. Jezebel, the female-oriented gossip blog, said the initiative was “probably one that should have been launched long before.” Fortune.com said that the last thing the NFL “wants is to bring in risk takers who could make the problem worse.”
Those who know Hogan professionally and personally say she’d never be a part of a PR stunt. If the NFL thought it was hiring Hogan solely for appearances’ sake, “they made a big mistake,” Biden said.
“She will not be a prop,” he said in a recent interview. “I guarantee you. If they thought they could do that, they picked the wrong person. Behind that smile and blond hair, whoa, she’s nobody’s fool.”
Biden helped bring Hogan into the world of politics and government, adding the young lawyer to his Senate Judiciary Committee staff in 1991. During that time, Biden says there were 61 lawyers working on his committee. “All number one in their class,” he said. “Cynthia wasn’t the least bit intimidated.”
When Biden began pushing for passage of the Violence Against Women Act, Hogan played a key role, he said. The law addressed all facets of domestic violence: investing in shelters, training police, educating judges and bulking up services offered to victims and families.
“I don’t think we could get the Violence Against Women Act done without her,” the vice president said.
Hogan re-joined Biden in 2008 when President Obama took office, serving as counsel to the vice president. When the president tasked Biden’s office with getting Sonia Sotomayor confirmed to the Supreme Court, the vice president put Hogan in charge. Hogan served as a Sherpa of sorts, running Sotomayor through mock questions and escorting her from office to office to meet privately with members of Congress.
“She was really a go-to person for the staff, just across the board,” said Evan Ryan, a former Biden colleague who’s now the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. “If you had a problem or challenge, she really had this revolving door of people coming in and out of her office.”
For many who leave the White House, the private sector offers higher salaries and more manageable hours. With the NFL, Hogan won’t be making courtroom appearances or preparing legal briefs. She’ll be explaining the league to Washington, and trying to translate Washington to the league.
“She’s incredibly charming and nice and engaging, but there’s a real toughness, too,” said Cathy Russell, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, who worked with Hogan in the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the White House. “She gives this look — it’s the Cynthia look. She’s not a pushover.”
Russell’s husband, Tom Donilon, first met Hogan in the registration line at the University of Virginia School of Law. “Even then she was cooler and more with it than the rest of us,” said Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to ’13. “And she still is.”
The NFL first opened its D.C. office in 2009 with three employees, headed by Jeff Miller, a Capitol Hill veteran. With a player lockout looming and performance-enhancing drugs a hot topic, politicians were paying more and more attention to the NFL’s activities.
“The government has a bigger role in private business than ever before,” said Paul Hicks, the league’s executive vice president of communications and government affairs, “so it's important to make sure your views are heard.”
But within just a couple of years, two staffers, including Miller, were moved to New York where they could focus on concussions and player safety issues. The D.C. office was depleted. In June, the league began hunting for someone new to lead its Washington operations. According to the league, officials went through 300 résumés and performed telephone screening on 75 applicants. Thirty-five went through a two-day interview, which was cut down to nine finalists and then four.
Hogan left Biden’s office shortly after Obama’s first term ended, choosing to spend more time at her Bethesda home while her two children were still in high school. She worked on some smaller consulting projects and took her time weighing her options. Some positions offered better titles, bigger staffs, more power.
“I talked to her about nearly every option that she had, and this was the first one that she really seemed excited about it,” said her friend Jamie Gorelick, a veteran Washington attorney who served as U.S. deputy attorney general from 1994 to ’97.
The NFL had made overtures in the past, but either the timing wasn’t right or the opening wasn’t. Hicks said all the finalists were told about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s Aug. 28 memo, in which the commissioner told team owners he “didn’t get it right,” with the Rice investigation (Goodell’s initial decision to suspend Rice for two games was met with widespread outrage). The ongoing controversy became a discussion point during job interviews. The NFL wasn’t seeking a D.C.-based domestic violence czar but knew the issue would be an important one in its Washington office.
“She obviously had greater expertise than other people,” Hicks said. “It’s an important topic for us, so that was an added benefit.”
In New York, the league’s domestic violence efforts are led by Anna Isaacson, an NFL vice president who was placed in charge of “social responsibility” last month, and Lisa Friel, a former New York prosecutor hired by the league in September as an outside adviser. Hogan provides support from Washington, leaning heavily on her contacts and experience.
The NFL is in the midst of revising and re-drafting its personal conduct policy, likely spelling out standards, punishments and even an investigative protocol in a more clear way. Goodell hopes to share the new policy before the Super Bowl in February. Hogan says it could surface even earlier, though she pointed out there are challenges.
The league is essentially operating without a blueprint, she says. Existing corporate policies tend to cover workplace safety and behavior, Hogan said, and don’t govern actions that happen, for instance, on Saturday night in a private residence.
“The closest parallels are the military and universities, and they also struggle,” Hogan said. “It’s not as if we can say, ‘Oh, they’ve done it beautifully, we’ll just do that too.’ In a sense, we are trying to invent the wheel here a little bit.”
She said the feedback has been positive, and many congressional leaders seem to appreciate the complexity of the issues the NFL faces. Hogan will register as a lobbyist to work the Hill, but under the president’s ethics pledge, a former White House staffer can’t lobby anyone in the current administration while Obama is still in office.
Hogan came to the NFL because of the myriad challenges a professional sports league faces today, a minefield of evolving issues. For now, she finds herself spending much of her time on the same topic she helped fashion into federal law more than two decades ago.
“People say to me, ‘You know, we haven’t made any progress, things are terrible.’ That’s not my perspective,” Hogan said. “I think about the first hearings we held, the stories we heard. . . . We’re light years past that.
“Does that mean the problem is solved?” she continued. “Of course not. But the fact that this is talked about, that the NFL is being criticized — 10 years ago plenty of players were accused and there wasn’t much outcry. I know it can feel counter-intuitive, but the outcry is progress.”
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