Somewhere in the real world, people worry about nuclear disarmament. And they worry that unemployment will crush our spirit. Everytime you look up, we're another $40 billion in debt. Israel tells our president to mind his own business. These are problems.
And what is the U.S. Senate dealing with? Which of the real world's dilemmas is the subject of lobbying so intense that a senatorial aide says, with awe, "In terms of steamrollers, I haven't seen anything like it since AT&T came up here."
This steamroller is the National Football League.
The U.S. Senate, faced with real problems, listens to NFL lobbyists and conducts hearings on legislation to give the league extraordinary powers denied to real-world businesses.
The NFL wants an antitrust exemption that would give it the right to stop owners from moving franchises. The NFL also wants this new law for power to enforce revenue-sharing by league members. This new law also would apply retroactively, meaning it would force Al Davis to move his Los Angeles Raiders back to Oakland even though a federal court's verdict freed him to move.
Without such exemptions, the NFL says it can not guarantee the economic well-being of all franchises. Without this new law, the NFL says it faces the possibility of antitrust suits filed from all corners. The NFL says that without such exemptions from real-world laws, it cannot risk expansion because it would increase the number of people who might sue it.
It took the NFL seven months and eight drafts of the legislation before it found a U.S. senator to introduce such an arrogant bill. Pollyannas may believe Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) picked up this burden because the world needs a richer, more powerful NFL. The rest of us believe DeConcini wants an NFL team in Phoenix, which long has lusted for such a blessing. And how better could Arizona please NFL pooh-bahs than to have a distinguished senator run interference on Capitol Hill?
DeConcini's bill has 20 cosponsors. With big-bucks lobbyists scurrying around the Hill, with Rozelle himself visiting senators set agog by the glamor of it all, the NFL has persuaded 20 senators to attach their names to legislation that is unnecessary as protection of public interest and, perhaps, unconstitutional in its retroactivity.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) asked this week, "How in God's name can we write an exception for a business?"
Very few people recognize professional sports as a business. The NFL is a multibillion dollar enterprise. It is not a game. It is not played for fun, the way senators played football for fun as kids. The NFL is a cartel with certain antitrust exemptions already. To give it more exemptions, to give it power to reverse a verdict of a federal court, would endow it with monopolistic powers and, consequently, the attendant problems of all monopolies.
Soon the NFL itself, not an owner, not a city, would decide that the Washington Redskins, to name a team, ought to move from that old ball park and into a domed stadium in the virgin pro football territory of Lincoln, Neb.
Far-fetched, certainly. But not much more far-fetched than the possibility that the NFL, with a new law, would be invulnerable to lawsuits brought by players who feel they are denied their fair share of revenues created by the monopoly. The NFL would be near-invulnerable because its antitrust exemptions, along with massive wealth, would have a chilling effect on any player thinking of suing for his share of, say, revenues produced when the NFL launches its own satellite to telecast its own games.
Soon enough, the NFL would be a law unto itself.
The DeConcini bill goes too far toward creation of such an NFL. Another antitrust exemption bill, drawn by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), is narrower. It deals with the specific problem of franchise movement. It sets up standards of economic distress by which an impartial arbiter would decide if a team could move.
The Specter bill would be nice, because every city loves its football team just as Brooklyn loved the Dodgers. But is it the Senate's business to legislate morality among football and baseball owners? If Walter O'Malley broke Brooklyn's heart, if Al Davis shanghais the Raiders after 12 straight years of sellouts in Oakland, they may have been morally bankrupt. The teams were their property, though. They could do with them what they want. It is a business, not a sport.
If a city wants a team in town forever, it should sign a contract keeping the team in town forever. But because most cities are suckers for the glamor, they often give the owners sweetheart deals that tie the city to the team for 30 years while demanding only five years from the team.
Biden again, on the duty of Congress: "I don't understand how we can go out of our way because (cities) cannot write a contract well."
It is a business deal, not a love affair. O'Malley's move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles proved that. A series of such moves were made in baseball, a business that conned the Supreme Court into broad antitrust exemptions.
Yet the NFL asks us to believe that its requested exemptions would stop franchise relocation. We are asked to believe that the league as a whole -- a committee of 28 owners, in fact -- is more honorable than one of its members.
Sorry, guys. We must assume that the NFL's blabber about keeping franchises in one city is meaningless. If only that honor mattered, the NFL would lobby long and hard for the simple, direct Specter bill.
By sending its phalanx of lobbyists to the Hill for the DeConcini bill, which differs from Specter's chiefly in permitting greater revenue sharing, the NFL says it is the money, not the honor, that counts most.
The question now is what counts most with the U.S. Senate. There is a public perception of the Senate carrying Pete Rozelle's antitrust bill to victory on the wings of promises made to put teams in Arizona and Tennessee. A team appeared in New Orleans shortly after Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) shepherded the NFL-AFL merger through Congress as a rider to a bill certain to pass.
Will the Senate sneak through the DeConcini bill the same way?
Will the NFL soon announce expansion to Phoenix and Memphis?
Or will someone stand up and say the Senate is not for sale, that football by its glamor has earned no special favors, that it is a business subject to the same laws as real people in the real world, and would the NFL please play football so the Senate can get back to real problems?