The National Football League owners have fielded their own all-star team this season, but not of football players.
It is a roster of lawyer-lobbyists, the likes of which Congress rarely sees gathered in the employ of a single client.
The lineup boasts a former Democratic National Committee chairman (Robert Strauss), a longtime media strategist for President Reagan (Peter Hannaford), a public relations wizard who put together Reagan's inaugural ball (Robert K. Gray), a former aide to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (Gary Hymel), a former head of the Urban League (Vernon Jordan), a longtime political strategist for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Paul Kirk), a former U.S. senator from Kentucky (Marlow Cook), a former aide to President Jimmy Carter (Anne Wexler), a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee (Emory Sneeden) and a partner with the city's largest and most august firm, Covington and Burling (Paul Tagliabue).
This talent has not been assembled to plead the league's case in the players' strike. Its mission is more daring: to reverse a federal court jury decision this spring that permitted maverick owner Al Davis to move his Raiders franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles.
Then, as long as they have the ear of Congress, the lobbyists want just one more little thing: broadened antitrust immunity that could make it easier for the NFL to one day transfer the distribution of its product from network to pay television, perhaps even to a cable system owned and operated by . . . the NFL.
The league has christened its bill the "Major League Sports Community Protection Act," and claims that without it, anarchy will reign, league rules will be flouted, competitive balance will be destroyed, expansion will be unthinkable and the wrenching spectacle of a franchise abandoning its loyal fans will be repeated time and again.
The opponents say this is all nonsense; that the whole "community protection" argument is but a smokescreen for a power grab that, even by the audacious standards of the NFL, is of monumental dimensions.
"You have 28 millionaires crying for help," Gene Upshaw, president of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) told Congress. "They lost a fair fight and now they're asking for special favors."
The uneasy battleground for these claims and counterclaims is Congress. At a time of unemployment at home and tensions abroad, it is frankly nervous about even wading into "the toyland department," as one of the combatants in the lobbying war, Los Angeles City Attorney Ira Reiner, has described the acrimonious dispute.
Indeed, for all of the lobbying talent the NFL has put on the field, the yardage hasn't come easily this year. In 1961, when the NFL sought antitrust immunity to negotiate television contracts as a single entity, and in 1966, when it needed an exemption to merge with the old American Football League, "things zipped through Congress like it was the Gulf of Tonkin," recalls Benjamin Zelenko, a former congressional staffer who now represents the NFLPA.
This time, all the league has to show for itself after a 10-month lobbying blitz is a draft bill far less ambitious than the one it started with, and no certain chances for passage.
True, it has amassed 22 cosponsors in the Senate and another 160 in the House. But its momentum has been slowed by the sour taste created by the players' strike, and also by a gathering uneasiness about retroactive application of the bill to the Raiders case.
Five of the original cosponsors of the bill, including Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), sent a "dear colleague" letter last week withdrawing their support because of concerns over retroactivity.
"I think the league has had a real problem getting Congress to focus on the issue," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who doubts the bill will be moved in the lame duck session that begins Nov. 29.
Specter is author of a compromise measure, opposed by the league, that would give cities with a team some protection against franchise movement, but would confer no new antitrust immunity on the owners. He said he could justify his involvement, at a time of such pressing economic problems, only because a move by either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Philadelphia Eagles would have grave consequences on the two largest cities of his state.
Specter added that he believes one of the things the league is "really after" in its bill is the right to negotiate cable television deals as a single unit once its current network television package expires in 1988. The league denies this is its motive.
At present, football is the only major sport that does not have some cable hookup. The terms of its agreements with the networks prohibit it. But many analysts believe that once the bulk of the country is wired up, football's future will be on cable.
The league is no stranger to the lobbying game, and its slow going this year hasn't been for want of trying. Specter, for example, heard personal pleas from the owners of the Eagles and Steelers; virtually all the owners in the league have been in touch with their delegations.
The Wexler firm, with its solid Democratic and big city connections, made a pitch on the league's behalf at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' meeting this summer, where it lined up the support of 40 mayors.
The Hannaford firm has been working the media side of the lobbying equation, sending out packets at regular intervals to columnists around the country.
The other Washington lobbying forces have been dividing their time between drafting legislation (with Tagliabue taking the lead in that area) and working members of Congress and their staffs (with Cook's firm carrying the ball there).
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle has been no shrinking violet. He has made it clear the league will not grow unless its bill is passed, and he dangles the expansion carrot before delegations from the six states that have cities seeking a new NFL team.
Indeed, a lawyer for Davis, former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, has accused at least two senators, Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (R-Ariz.), of supporting the bill in return for a promise that the cities of Memphis and Phoenix would get expansion franchises.
The parties have angrily denied these charges, and Cook said last week that "Mr. Alioto ought to be brought before the bar association . . . His accusations are totally irresponsible."
Cook also has little use for the other organized opposition to the bill -- the players union. He says the union will in no way be hurt by the legislation, and that its only reason for opposing it is to "pick up a chit to be traded in the bargaining process."
The union counters that a league with strengthened antitrust immunity will be even more difficult to bargain with.
There is, on top of all these considerations, a festering personal vendetta between Rozelle and Davis, the jilted feelings of the citizenry of Oakland and a barrage of lawsuits and countersuits and appeals, including one that would enable the city of Oakland to pluck the Raiders back out of Los Angeles under the procedure of eminent domain.
The lawyers all agree it will take years for the courts to sort everything out. Congress could easily take that long, too.