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

Play­ers union hires lob­by­ists to help level the field

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DAN EGGEN eggend@wash­post.com

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 (DWis.). “We don’t think a third­party 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.

The play­ers as­so­ci­a­tion does not have a PAC and spends only 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 says 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.”

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