NFL Players Want Hill to Referee Dispute

Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:55pm

Are you ready for some lobbying?

Although the 2010 National Football League’s regular season just kicked off, gridiron players have been moving the chains for months on Capitol Hill, attempting to persuade lawmakers to take their side in ongoing labor negotiations with team owners.

“The NFL has had lobbyists for years and years and years,” said Domonique Foxworth, a Baltimore Ravens player and board member of the NFL Players Association. “We’re just starting to understand how politics works.”

The players’ union is on pace to pay the firm Patton Boggs $460,000 in 2010, an estimated 20 percent increase from the previous year and a staggering 360 percent increase from the labor group’s 2008 lobbying budget, according to records filed with the Secretary of the Senate.

The dramatic uptick coincides with the hiring of DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the players’ union. Smith, a former Patton Boggs lawyer, replaced longtime players’ union head and former Oakland Raiders lineman Gene Upshaw, who died two years ago.

In an interview, Foxworth attributed the dramatic uptick in the union’s lobbying budget to ongoing contract negotiations with team owners, who are threatening to shut down the league next year if players do not agree to wage cuts.

Foxworth, who is injured, added that recent revelations about the possible long-term consequences of repeated head trauma to football players are also drawing attention from Members.

“It’s become more and more apparent how horrible those things are, how they affect people’s future and how they’re happening a lot sooner to [players] than for an average person,” said Foxworth, who has met with lawmakers a handful of times. “They see the correlation between the success the owners have with sacrifice the players make. There’s no debate that there’s something owed to those people who sacrifice their health to make the game the way it is today.”

In addition to physical ailments, the union is also stressing the disastrous economic effects a shutdown would have on small-market NFL teams such as the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, storied Rust Belt franchises in struggling regions.

“One of the big things that people are taking notice of now is how many people will be out of work, lose jobs and how much losing the games would negatively affect those cities that depend on those Sundays,” Foxworth said. “It has a much broader effect than just not having those football games.”

The team owners counter that revenue losses from the economic downturn mean players, too, should make a sacrifice to help the league. NFL lobbyist Jeff Miller said the league would prefer to work directly with players, not with lawmakers acting as intermediaries or before Congressional oversight committees.

“Players receive a fixed percentage of revenues, but their salaries continue to grow — they’ve almost doubled over the past 10 years,” Miller said. “But if we’re going to continue to grow the game, the clubs want to be able to invest, and we don’t think the incentives exist right now for the clubs to be able to invest in the way they would like.

“We think that we’ll be able to address these issues at the negotiation table with the players association,” he continued. “We have a long history of very successful labor relations, and we have every interest in continuing those.”

If team owners don’t address players’ concerns, the union is hoping sympathetic Members will threaten to revoke the NFL’s monopoly on television advertising rights, which allows owners to negotiate lucrative deals with networks. Foxworth argued that the antitrust exemption is unfair if players are being exploited.

“It’s never bad to take a good look at anything,” he said.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) agreed that the NFL’s lawmaker-blessed monopoly could be in play. A member of the Judiciary Committee, Sánchez and many of her Democratic colleagues have been critical of the league’s response to the long-term risk of repeated head injuries on the football field.

“Everybody shares the same goal of trying to avoid a lockout in the 2011 season,” but a review of the NFL’s antitrust exemption could be warranted, Sánchez said in an interview Friday.

“In the arsenal of tools, that’s sort of the nuclear option — but it’s an option,” she said. “A lot of these retired players who are having a difficult time … they built the league into the multibillion-dollar industry that it is today.

“To have such a highly successful money machine and to continue to try and profit off of some of these players?” she added. “It’s criminal in my opinion.”

Sánchez also accused her Republican counterparts of not being aggressive enough in dealing with the NFL. If so, that may not bode well for the players’ union after Nov. 2, when the GOP could win dozens of House seats — perhaps even the majority. A Republican spokesman for the House Judiciary panel did not respond to a request for comment.

“I’ve been kind of shocked, frankly, at the laissez-faire attitude of Republican Members, particularly on Judiciary, on the issue of concussions,” Sánchez said.