7 seasons as an NFL lobbyist


Jonathan Nabavi, the National Football League’s vice president of public policy and government affairs, no longer measures his life in years. He measures it in seasons.
Nabavi has been with the NFL for seven seasons, part of a team that has helped the professional sports league navigate the rise of sports betting, a global pandemic, the 2028 Olympics debut of flag football and, of course, the Super Bowl.
After conspiracy theories threatened to engulf this year’s Super Bowl, Nabavi described the NFL as “a convening force for America.”
“Everyone is interested in the NFL, talks about the NFL, watches the NFL. It’s one of the true classic cultural touchstones, and it runs through all aspects of American life,” Nabavi, a former center for the Penn State Nittany Lions football team, told The Hill.
Nabavi recalled hearing Penn State football games from his childhood home in State College, Pa., which sparked an early love of football. Nabavi said he and his brother were always asking their father, who was on the medical faculty at Penn State and “wasn’t a football guy,” to put in for tickets to the games.
But he would spend plenty of time in Beaver Stadium when he got the opportunity to play for the Nittany Lions, running scout team against future NFL heavyweights, including LaVar Arrington and Courtney Brown.
Off the field, Nabavi was an honors student who studied political science and international relations.
“I loved history and politics, which is sort of how I ended up coming down here. As my friends were training to go pro and go to the NFL, I wound up getting into law school,” Nabavi said.
After taking time to study French at Paris-Sorbonne University, Nabavi moved to Washington and started law school at George Washington University.
The school was the perfect place to explore his interest in policy and politics, Nabavi said, and he soon started working on political campaigns and clerking. He soon landed a job on Capitol Hill, where he would spend the next decade.
Nabavi ultimately became counsel for the majority staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee under then-chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), which he described as a “total privilege.”
When asked what advice he would offer to young people starting out in Washington, Nabavi said, “If you know what you want to do, pursue it.”
“I eschewed the big firm route because ultimately this was where I wanted to be and got really lucky to have a good, fun career,” he said. “Yes, make a living, but go for what you want to do. That’s what your 20s in D.C. is about, right?”
“You don’t have to put yourself on any timelines,” he added. “Working on the Hill is a total privilege. It’s hard work, and maybe it’s not the best paid, but whatever you do, you’ll look back on that fondly, so don’t be too eager to leave.”
More than a decade after some of his former teammates pursued careers with the NFL, Nabavi finally seized his opportunity in 2017.
“If you have the opportunity to help promote [football] and make the process happen and make football work, I’m gonna jump at that,” Nabavi said when asked about his decision to leave the Hill.
Not long after Nabavi started working at the NFL, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that barred states from offering legal sports betting. Since the decision came down in May 2018, 38 states and D.C. have greenlighted some form of sports betting.
“At the time, we were very reluctant to see the widespread promulgation of sports betting because we’re concerned about the issues affecting the integrity of the game,” said Nabavi, who joined a small team that traveled to “more mature markets,” including London, to come up with a game plan.
But now Nabavi says the NFL — which has since launched sportsbook partnerships with betting giants including Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel — is in a “really good place” as the country and professional sports have navigated the transition.
He’s had to assuage similar concerns from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nevada), co-chair of the Congressional Gaming Caucus.
Titus sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last June that called for transparency into the sports league’s betting policy for athletes and staff. The league later announced increased penalties for players who bet on NFL games, which Titus called “a step in the right direction.”
Nabavi has also been working with lawmakers to develop a pilot program to address the spate of drones illegally flying over stadiums, which have forced officials to halt nationally televised events and pull players to protect their safety.
Federal law permits only the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take down these potentially dangerous drones. The NFL and other sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and NASCAR, support the Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act of 2023, which would expand that authority to allow state and local law enforcement and the owners and operators of critical infrastructure, such as airports, to use DHS-approved drone detection and mitigation technology.
As it currently stands, Nabavi says the FBI and DHS don’t have the resources to send their counter-drone teams to games regularly, noting only about 70 of the more than 100,000 requests for drone enforcement teams were fulfilled last year.
Nabavi said he’s also working to support the Access to AEDs Act, which would provide funds for schools to purchase the life-saving defibrillator and train people to respond to a sudden cardiac arrest like the one Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin had last January.
Nabavi said that in the wake of the “frightening” incident, which he was watching from his Washington home, he realized there was more the league could be doing to protect the health and safety of players beyond the professionals.
“[Hamlin] survived because of the incredible training and the processes that were in place around that, but for me, it was realizing that we don’t necessarily have those things on hand, like this is a problem for youth sports,” Nabavi said.
After nearly two decades in Washington, Nabavi is in a different season of life. He likes to rest and recharge when he’s not at work, taking his daughters to their favorite breakfast spot on Saturday mornings and bringing his wife, who comes from a “big Patriots family,” with him to the Super Bowl.
And after years of playing kept him from tailgating, Nabavi described his favorite tailgate tradition as the calm before the storm.
“Early morning, like that early morning coffee before anyone else is there. It’s quiet, kinda cold and maybe you pull out the newspaper or just sit there,” Nabavi said. “You know you’re in for a great day of football, but it’s all ahead of you right there.”


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