On to the Hill: Players lobby Congress over issues with NFL

WASHINGTON -- Pro football players sought lawmakers' help Wednesday in preventing NFL owners from imposing a lockout after next season and said a league victory in a Supreme Court antitrust case could affect free agency and ticket prices.

"We want Congress to know that management is pushing us toward a lockout," said Kevin Mawae, the union president and one of about 30 current and former players who were on Capitol Hill.

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A league official said the players' time would be better spent negotiating with the owners than lobbying Congress.

Mawae, a Tennessee Titans center, hopes Congress will exert its leverage over the league to help prevent a lockout, which players fear the owners plan to do following the 2010 season. He cited comments by New York Giants co-owner John Mara to The New York Times this week that the two sides might be moving further apart in negotiations for a new deal.

Owners contend the existing agreement, which calls for players to receive about 60 percent of revenues, is too favorable for players.

"We like the agreement the way it is," Washington Redskins wide receiver Antwaan Randle El told The Associated Press. He said owners "want us to go back to the '70s," before the current free agency system started.

Several players said they told lawmakers how a lockout would affect workers who depend on games, such as employees of football stadiums and nearby restaurants. They said Congress has leverage over the league, including an antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts that helped turn the NFL into the economic powerhouse it is today.

"I want Congress to review why they gave the exemption," Houston Texans guard Chester Pitts said. Holding his fingers a half-inch apart, he added, "Right now, the NFL has that much oversight. We want more."

League vice president Joe Browne said in an e-mail that the union's new executive director, DeMaurice Smith, won election on a platform "that included 'using' Congress to exert influence on our labor talks."

He added: "Kevin's comments -- and the visits by dozens of players to the Hill today -- are consistent with that promise. The owners and players are going to negotiate a deal. The only question is when. Having the union and its player reps spending more time in the negotiating room and less time lobbying Congress would be a good start."

The players also brought up a Supreme Court case in which the NFL argues it should be considered one business when it comes to selling NFL-branded items. The court heard arguments on the case last week.

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Apparel maker American Needle claims that the league's exclusive contract with Reebok International Ltd. for headgear violated antitrust laws.

"A judgment in favor of the NFL could severely damage the system that we've had in place for the last 20-something years," Mawae said, predicting such a decision could affect free agency for players and help owners control ticket prices. He made the same point in testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Browne said the case simply deals with the licensing of intellectual property.

Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, who heads the subcommittee, wondered why the NFL needs "special antitrust immunity. The NFL is seeking indirectly from the courts what it could not get from Congress."

But the full committee's ranking Republican, Lamar Smith of Texas, called the NFL and the players union "literally and figuratively big boys. They do not need Congress' help to referee every business dispute. That is what the courts and the labor negotiation process are for."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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