By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 4:23 PM
As a labor dispute threatens to shut down the National Football League next season, the two sides are moving the game to a new playing field: Capitol Hill.
The union that represents pro football players has hired a coterie of new lobbyists and public-relations officials in recent months to help make its case to Congress that the NFL owners are acting unfairly in labor talks. The NFL Players Association and its backers say lawmakers can step in because of a congressional antitrust exemption that allows the league to negotiate lucrative broadcast rights.
The lobbying efforts include visits scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday by more than 30 players and their families, who will meet with lawmakers and legislative staffers. The players plan to emphasize the potential economic impact that an NFL shutdown could have on local communities, according to union officials.
"The most important thing that can happen for us on Capitol Hill is to just level the playing field," Domonique Foxworth, a Baltimore Ravens cornerback and a member of the NFLPA's Executive Committee, said in a recent conference call with reporters, noting that the NFL "has been lobbying on Capitol Hill for a number of years now."
"It's important that they see our faces too and realize another team is also playing in the game," Foxworth added.
But the NFL, which has its own sizable lobbying operation in Washington, says Congress should stay out of what amounts to a private-sector business negotiation.
"This deal will be reached at the negotiating table, not in the halls of Congress," said chief NFL lobbyist Jeff Miller, a former counsel to Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.). "We don't think a third-party intervention, whether it's for Congress or anyone else, helps you get a deal here."
The current labor deal between the NFL and the union expires in March, and players say they expect a work stoppage, initiated by the owners, if a deal isn't reached. Both sides have been jockeying for leverage and public-relations points in recent weeks, with the main sticking points being a demand by owners to cut back salaries by about $1 billion league-wide and add two games to the season.
One strategy available to players is to decertify the union, which could keep them from being locked out and expose the league to an antitrust lawsuit. Under the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, the NFL is allowed to ignore antitrust laws in negotiating a television package for the league at large, but the courts have rejected NFL attempts to broaden the exception to other areas.
Some lawmakers, including former senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, have toyed with the idea of rescinding the NFL's exemption. But Congress in general has been reluctant to get involved in labor disputes pitting two unsympathetic parties - millionaire players and billionaire owners - against each other.
The NFL's lobbying expenditures are expected to exceed $1.5 million in 2010, including payments to Democratic-leaning firms Elmendorf Strategies and Glover Park Group, according to records and officials. The league's political-action committee also showered more than $600,000 in contributions to members of both parties in the 2010 cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finances.
The players association does not have a PAC and only spends about a third as much on lobbying as the league. But the union has been attempting to close the gap in recent months, hiring Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock to join its main lobbying firm, Patton Boggs. The players association has also enlisted the help of Singer Bonjean Strategies, a bipartisan public-relations firm with close ties to Congress.
Over the past year, the union has organized scores of visits to Capitol Hill by players and other representatives, and is circulating letters to be signed by lawmakers urging the league to cut a better deal for players. The powerful AFL-CIO union also weighed in with a letter last fall to team owners.
Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said Congress has an interest in the NFL labor dispute because of the potential damage to local economies if there is a lockout. The players association claims a shutdown would cost each NFL city $160 million in lost business, a figure that the league and some outside analysts say is inflated.
Fujita said many football cities such as Cleveland are already struggling amid the economic downturn. "To lose out on the money that would come in from an NFL season, it's going to be devastating," he said. "So from that standpoint it is the government's business and I think it is important for them to be involved."
But Miller, the NFL lobbyist, said the league will push back with its own message that Congress has no business interfering with the labor talks.
"We're not looking to ask Congress to be involved, but we can't abdicate the playing field," Miller said. "Our effort is going to be to make sure that members of Congress are aware of our point of view."