NFL players are blitzing Capitol Hill, meeting with about a dozen members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to build political support in a possible labor showdown with team owners.
About 20 current and former players were sitting down with lawmakers Wednesday, fanning out in three teams, following a negotiating session a day earlier between players and owners on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Last year the owners voted to opt out of the current agreement in 2011, raising the possibility of a work stoppage in two years. Owners argue that the current agreement is too favorable for players, who get about 60 percent of revenues.
The players have countered with a union-commissioned study that showed the average value of the teams has grown from $288 million to $1.04 billion over 10 years, an increase of about 14 percent a year.
The players, who fear a lockout, will remind lawmakers about the "gifts" Congress bestows on the league, such as an antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts, the union's new executive director, DeMaurice Smith, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
It may be hard to conjure up much sympathy for football players making seven-figure salaries. But Smith noted that thousands of people are employed as stadium workers.
"I'm not sure in an economic downturn whether a business that generated $8 billion in revenue last year should be contemplating" throwing those people out of work during a lockout, he said, adding that lawmakers should think about the consequences to their home cities.
Besides Pelosi, D-Calif., other lawmakers on the players' agenda included Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., assistant to the speaker; Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee; and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who has taken on the NFL on various issues.
NFL vice president Joe Browne said the league was "hopeful that matters can be resolved." "It's a little premature to talk about putting stadium workers out of work in 2011," he added.
Congress has jurisdiction over the NFL in several areas, including a 1961 law granting leagues antitrust exemption for broadcasting. That allowed the NFL to sign TV contracts on behalf of all its teams, helping to transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.
Browne said the main beneficiaries of the exemption are "the league, the clubs, the players and the fans who get all their games on free over-the-air TV" because of it.
"If we hadn't been able to get the exemption, I'm not sure we'd have 32 teams at this point — some of the smaller markets wouldn't be able to compete with the New Yorks and Chicagos," Browne said.
The union president, Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae, said players are worried they might not be playing in two years. "We want them (lawmakers) to know that we are genuinely concerned," he said.
St. Louis Rams linebacker Chris Draft said he hopes people understand the players are trying to avoid a lockout. "The players want to play," he said.
In selecting Smith this year, the union chose Washington smarts over football experience. Smith, a Washington lawyer, served on President Barack Obama's transition team and also worked for Eric Holder before Holder became attorney general.
"Just like every business in America, a good presence on the Hill is good business," said Mark Bruener, a free-agent tight end who played the last few seasons with the Houston Texans.
Other players participating in the lobbying effort include Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes, Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel.
The NFL has also ramped up its Washington presence, hiring a full-time lobbyist and creating a political action committee to make federal campaign donations last year.
Congress has a history of taking a close look at sports leagues during work stoppages. After the 232-day strike wiped out the 1994 World Series, several lawmakers introduced legislation to take away baseball's coveted antitrust exemption.
Finally, in 1998, President Bill Clinton signed narrower legislation that revoked the antitrust exemption only for labor relations, not for matters involving relocation, league expansion or the minor leagues.