WASHINGTON - A year without a Super Bowl? It may be unthinkable to football fans, but that's one worry behind a new lobbying push by NFL players.
The NFL Players Association is bracing for a showdown with team owners that could lead to a work stoppage when the current collective bargaining deal expires.
Hoping to enlist powerful allies, the players' group is ratcheting up its lobbying on Capitol Hill under new executive director DeMaurice Smith.
The players union spent US$220,000 on lobbying in the second half of last year, more than double what it had spent in all of the previous year. Last May, soon after taking over at the union, Smith switched lobbyists, hiring Patton Boggs, the powerhouse Washington firm where he had been a partner.
Since then, he's organized a couple of player lobby days, featuring dozens of current and former players who bring their star power to meetings with lawmakers and congressional staffers. Those making the rounds have included Washington Redskins wide receiver Antwaan Randle El and Kevin Mawae, a Pro-Bowl Tennesse Titans centre and president of the players' union.
The union has said it fears the owners will impose a lockout after next season's Super Bowl, and it has been building relationships on Capitol Hill in hopes of getting Congress' help in keeping the games going. The league counters that a new collective bargaining agreement will get done, but owners also contend the existing agreement, which calls for players to receive about 60 per cent of revenues, is too favourable for players.
"I believe that our players have a role in making this game better for our fans, and being business partners with the NFL to grow the game," Smith said in an interview. "At the same time, we want to make sure that partnership doesn't become one-sided. Every major union in the country has a presence on the Hill."
Smith said that the increased lobbying was in part a reaction to the NFL's own expanded Washington presence. In 2008, the league hired an in-house lobbyist, former Capitol Hill staffer Jeff Miller, and established a political action committee to raise campaign money. Last year, the NFL's "Gridiron PAC" made about $250,000 in political donations. The union doesn't have a PAC.
Even with the union's increased lobbying, the NFL continues to vastly outspend it. In the last six months of 2009, the NFL reported $610,000 in lobbying expenses, nearly triple the union's total.
Smith said another factor in the union's increased lobbying expenditures was the recent Supreme Court case in which the NFL argued it should be considered one business - not 32 separate teams - when it comes to selling NFL-branded items. The players are worried that a broad ruling from the court, which heard arguments in the antitrust case last month, could go well beyond merchandise.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a union executive committee member who will start in Sunday's Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts, recently warned that a favourable decision for the NFL would enable owners to end or restrict free agency. The league insists the case is only about licensing of intellectual property and has nothing to do with labour.
Smith brings Washington connections to the job. In addition to being a partner at Patton Boggs, he served on the Obama transition team and previously worked for Eric Holder, now the nation's attorney general.
"We recognize that Congress has a legitimate role in a myriad of issues that affect our players, their families, and our fans, beyond just the labour issues," Smith said. In particular, Smith said that he decided to take an aggressive position on head injuries and their lasting effects on players.
"That was an issue that I felt that not only had the NFL not done enough in the past, but we as a union had not done enough in the past," said Smith, who testified at two congressional hearings on the subject over the past few months.
Congress has leverage over the league in several areas, including an antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts. That exemption, which allows the NFL to sign TV contracts on behalf of all teams, helped to transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.
"It's a question of Congress exercising oversight authority that it has, and to ask the right questions given the gifts they give to the National Football League," Smith said. "Our players made the point of saying, the antitrust exemption that the league gets in Congress is a gift. We do think that Congress should be assured that that gift is being used in a way that benefits our fans, our players and the owners."
NFL vice-president Joe Browne said in an email that most lawmakers realize that the league has used the exemption to keep games on broadcast TV.
"That benefits NFL fans, players and the clubs," he said. "The players actually benefit the most monetarily since they receive 60 per cent of the TV revenue through the labour agreement."
Smith said that he hired his old firm because "they're the best. And one of the reasons I know they're the best is I know that the NFL has looked at them as well."
Browne confirmed that the league interviewed Jonathan Yarowsky, a Patton Boggs partner, for outside lobbying work last year. Yarowsky is one of the Patton Boggs lobbyists now working for the union.