February 24, 2011

By nearly any measure, football in America is popular, profitable and unifying; a phenomenon that bridges race, income and geography.

So it’s with some unease that I and millions of other Americans have watched as a bitter labor dispute plays out in the National Football League and the possibility of a lockout March 3 clouds the future of the next season.

Most fans follow the league’s developments in the news and around the proverbial water cooler. Congress, acting in the public interest, has to keep the NFL on track because of the great benefits given to the league by federal law and taxpayer funds and because of its impact on the nation’s economy.

For that reason, the House and Senate have periodically held hearings and meetings with professional sports officials and players to review issues of urgent public interest such as safety, illegal drug use and antitrust exemptions.

In this case, the prospect of a prolonged fight between owners and players has a direct bearing on the lives of millions of Americans who are caught in the middle.

How? Taxpayers who have helped to underwrite stadium construction are on the hook for bond payments for teams that might not play.

Workers in concessions, merchandise and other fields face the prospect of no income if the season doesn’t start as planned.

Hotels, restaurants and local businesses that provide tens of thousands of jobs to everyday Americans might be forced to adjust hiring.

And this does not factor in the potential loss to regular fans whose American spirit is buoyed by the thrill of intense competition and team loyalty.

As chairman of the Senate committee that is charged with overseeing sports and communications issues, my approach up to this point has been deliberately hands-off.

Aside from conversations in recent months on the status of negotiations, I have kept our committee from stepping into the debate between the two sides.

I had hoped that the competitive environment and obvious high stakes could bring the two sides together. I had hoped that the owners and players could find a way to satisfactorily divide up what amounts to a $9 billion pie.

Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to sort out this stalemate is for the owners and the league to answer the biggest sticking point: money.

What I’d like to see from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners is a simple display of good faith: Show the union your books. Don’t keep secrets. If there are financial pressures that keep you from agreeing to the revenue-sharing plan proposed by the players, let’s see the proof.

Ask a neutral third party to review your financial data, redact anything sensitive and prepare an unbiased bottom-line assessment of the league’s finances.

Certainly, some owners make significant investments while managing a professional sports team and I don’t want to play down their long-term expenses and obligations.

But the players deserve a good-faith effort to demonstrate that these expenses are real and not just an excuse.

Taking this simple step would answer the criticism from players that teams are extremely profitable but owners are unwilling to share the bonanza with the players who make it all possible.

The writer, a Democrat from West Virginia, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.