The National Football League is used to big, bruising battles. But it announced it was likely staying out of one of the roughest fights in Washington: the war over Obamacare.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently disclosed that the administration was in talks with the sports organization to help promote the law, which enters a new phase as advocates prepare to begin enrolling millions of Americans in health insurance this fall.
Republican leaders in the Senate issued a stern warning to sports organizations not to partner with the administration on an issue marked by such "divisiveness and persistent unpopularity."
Asked about the congressional letter, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had not made any commitment to the administration. "We have responded to the letters we received from members of Congress to inform them we currently have no plans to engage in this area and have had no substantive contact with the administration about (the health-care law's) implementation," he said in an email.
The NFL's decision is the latest blow to the administration over the health-care law, which faces enormous hurdles as key portions go into effect in the coming months. Chief among the challenges is the political opposition to the law, which has persisted since its passage in 2010 despite hopes on the part of advocates that it would eventually be accepted as the law of the land.
Republicans so far have not been successful in repealing the law, though they have tried dozens of times. But they have managed to disrupt its implementation, and are now mounting their own public relations campaign aimed at painting efforts to enroll people in health benefits under the law as politically charged.
About two dozen GOP-led states so far have declined the law's expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor. Even more have refused to set up their own online marketplaces for other lower-income people to get federal subsidies to buy private insurance. Republicans in Congress have also rejected efforts to devote more money to the law's implementation.
They have blasted Sebelius for soliciting donations on behalf of Enroll America, a large nonprofit with ties to the White House that is spearheading much of the ground-level work on enrollment. The controversy has given pause to some potential donors to Enroll America who are wary of wading into a politically charged fight.
With Friday's letter, Republicans are now trying to discourage large mainstream organizations from encouraging people to sign up for insurance under the law. Beginning Jan. 1, almost all Americans will be required to have insurance or face a penalty.
"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," Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and John Cornyn, R-Tx., wrote in a letter to six major sports organizations, including the NFL and Major League Baseball.
Earlier this week, Sebelius told reporters that while there was no formal agreement, NFL officials were "actively and enthusiastically engaged, because they see health promotion as one of the things that they think is good for them and good for the country." She said it was one of several sports organizations the administration had approached.
A spokesman for Major League Baseball acknowledged it had been contacted by the White House, but said the White House cancelled the meeting and that the league has not been provided with any information to make a decision. A spokesman for the National Hockey League said last Friday that the White House postponed a planned meeting, and that it had not made a decision about a partnership.
The NFL assists with other health-related public-relations campaigns. For example, each October, the NFL partners with the American Cancer Society to promote breast-cancer awareness. Players wear pink gear, some of which is later auctioned off, and pink ribbons are featured prominently on football fields. The league also promotes sales of jerseys and other merchandise to raise money for breast-cancer research.
But Rich Galen, a longtime Republican strategist, said the sports organizations may not have been fully aware of the political morass they are wading into with the health-care law.
"This isn't like going out to say you should get 60 minutes of exercise every day," Galen said. "This is a very politically charged activity, and they need to go out and seriously contemplate whether it is in their best interest to become promoters of one side or the other."
Republicans' dogged resistance to the health-care law makes political sense, he said. He and other Republicans believe that people's health insurance options will shrink and become more expensive as the law reaches full implementation, and that Republicans will be rewarded at the ballot box for having tried at every turn to thwart it.
White House allies, however, say that the Republican efforts are aimed at obstructing the law before people can enjoy its benefits. Beginning in January, health insurance companies will be barred from rejecting people with preexisting conditions. Many low- and middle-income Americans will be able to get free or reduced-cost insurance.
Last Friday's letter to sports organizations "demonstrates the desperation of 'Obamacare' opponents who want to stop the Affordable Care Act's implementation before it provides clear and substantial help for middle class and moderate income Americans struggling to afford health care," said Ronald Pollack, executive director of Families USA and founder of Enroll America.
The administration's effort to recruit sports organization sponsors mirrors a 2007 campaign in Massachusetts, where officials successfully partnered with the Boston Red Sox to promote that state's universal coverage law.
But in their letters -- which also went to the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, NASCAR and the Professional Golfers Association -- the Republican senators said the Massachusetts situation was different because it passed on a bipartisan basis and enjoyed popular support. Obamacare, they said, passed along party lines and remains extremely controversial.