NFL labor dispute heads to a new gridiron: Halls of Congress

By Dan Eggen
Sunday, January 16, 2011

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. Herb 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 pact 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 would 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.

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