- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2011

The NFL is big business these days, but the new Congress isn’t exactly playing tight defense in the face of a looming and perhaps economically damaging work stoppage.

The union that represents the players — the National Football League Players Association — wants the 112th Congress to help negotiate a labor contract with team owners. The contract is set to expire March 3, and at stake are the league’s estimated $9 billion in annual revenue and hundreds of jobs, ranging from peanut hawkers to video-game makers.

Last year, players visited Capitol Hill several times to talk to lawmakers about the issue with little luck. Now with so many new faces in Washington, the union hopes Congress will take another look at the issue, considering the country’s persistently high unemployment and the large number of lawmakers elected in 2010 on a populist mandate to save and create jobs.

It still could be a tough sell.

Congress faces a long list of reasons why it would avoid meddling in a collective-bargaining agreement, including expected tough votes on repealing the new health care law and whether to raise the ceiling on the federal debt, which is now at roughly $14 trillion.

“And it would be hard to say to the tea party, ‘We’re going to increase the reach of federal government to settle a labor dispute between millionaires and billionaires,’ ” said Jason Barkham, a Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer who follows the nexus of pro sports and the federal government.

Even before the GOP took control of the House, Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, then ranking member of the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said both sides were “big boys” who didn’t need Congress to “referee every business dispute” and that they should look toward the courts and the labor-negotiation process, not Congress, to help solve their problem.

Mr. Smith, of Texas, said upon becoming House Judiciary chairman this month that the committee will now focus on strengthening national security, protecting intellectual property, preventing frivolous lawsuits and keeping children safe from Internet sex predators.

A Judiciary aide said Tuesday the committee has yet to schedule any hearing and that ones concerning the contract negotiations seem unlikely.

Players, for their part, see Congress as one of their best chances to stay on the field and avoid a lockout by owners.

“We need to organize more [Capitol Hill] meetings, at a time when people cannot afford to lose their jobs,” Baltimore Ravens player representative Dominique Foxworth told The Washington Times this week. “If you’re going to lock out people, you’d better have a really good reason. This also hurts cities and businesses, from the restaurant owners who pay outrageous rents just to be near a football stadium to the people who drive the transit buses.”

The NFL, which is controlled by the owners of the member teams, has criticized the union’s tactics in trying to involve Congress in the dispute, although the owners are no stranger to lawmakers. Last year, the league gave roughly $600,000 to members of Congress and midterm candidates from both parties through its political action committee, Gridiron PAC.

The league also gave $1.1 million to lobbying-public relations groups, including the high-powered Glover Park Group and Covington & Burling, which recently hired former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

The union spent $340,000 last year in lobbying, all to the high-powered Washington firm Patton Boggs, according to the IRS and Federal Election Commission records.

The players union’s newest executive director, DeMaurice Smith, has no NFL connection, but worked on President Obama’s transition team and is a former partner at Patton Boggs.

Team owners decided two years ago to terminate their 2006 labor agreement in hopes of negotiating a better deal with players, who receive an estimated 60 percent of league revenue. The players and their union want to keep the existing agreement and say adding more regular-season games also increases their risk of injury, so they want post-retirement health insurance that extends by five years.

A union spokesman said Tuesday the union and the league “continue to have dialogue” and are meeting in break-out groups, but no official meetings have been scheduled.

A union study found each game generates roughly $20 million in economic activity and that a lockout would result in about 100,000 stadium workers being out of work.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the owners’ proposal would help the league to grow and is better for the long-term future of the economy.

“A 10 percent unemployment rate hurts us all,” he said in a Jan. 3 open letter to the public. “Fans have limited budgets and rightly want the most for their money. I get it.”

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