WASHINGTON -- Pro football players swept across Capitol Hill on Wednesday and asked lawmakers to take a tough look at owners' profits as the two sides prepare to decide how to divide their big pot of TV money and other revenues.
During the lobbying visits, the NFL players' union head urged members of Congress to consider the potential impact of labor strife on retired and disabled players. They could see their benefits cut unless there is a deal soon, executive director DeMaurice Smith said.
The contract between players and owners doesn't expire for two years, but only one more season will have a salary cap. When that goes, Smith said, so does the league's responsibility for paying its share of benefits for retired and disabled players. The league denies that.
"I don't think it's morally right" for those athletes to see their benefits reduced "when a league makes $8 billion a year," Smith said during a meeting with Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and several players.
But NFL vice president Joe Browne said in an e-mail that "there is nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that terminates pensions or disability benefits to our retired players in an uncapped year and it is wrong to suggest that this may occur if there is an uncapped season in 2010."
Two years ago, Sanchez held a hearing that highlighted problems the retirees had in fighting through red tape while trying to overcome multiple surgeries, dementia and homelessness.
Sanchez told Smith that his predecessor, the late Gene Upshaw, seemed more concerned with current than retired players. Smith responded that the union has a "moral obligation" to retired players. "We've all embraced change," he said.
"I'm glad to hear that," said Sanchez.
Smith also wants help in getting the NFL to open its books. He said Congress has leverage because of the benefits it provides to the league, including an antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts. That exemption allows the NFL to sign TV contracts on behalf of all teams, helping to transform the league into an economic powerhouse.
The NFL's Browne responded: "Congressmen understand and passed laws to keep labor talks such as ours at the negotiating table and out of the halls of Congress."
About 20 current and former players fanned out across the Capitol in three teams, following a negotiating session a day earlier between players and owners on a new collective bargaining agreement. Players fear that owners are setting the stage for a lockout and hope Congress can use its influence to help prevent that.
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 contend the existing 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 a team has grown from $288 million to $1.04 billion over 10 years.
It may be hard to feel sympathetic for athletes with seven-figure salaries. But the union is trying to connect with lawmakers by stressing the plight of retirees, many of whom played before the era of big money, as well as stadium workers.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., popped out of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearing to meet with Smith and the players, telling them he'd be willing to "dig into your issues" to help avoid a work stoppage. Specter has taken on the NFL on a number of issues, including an investigation into "Spygate," the controversy that began when a New England Patriots employee was caught in the 2007 season opener filming New York Jets defensive signals.
"The NFL enjoys a luxurious antitrust exemption, so Congress has some power," he told reporters. While stressing he didn't know yet who was right or wrong, he said, "I do know it's not in the public's interest to have the football season interrupted," because of the excitement the sport generates for fans and its economic impact.
The players also met with a kindred sprit: Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., a former NFL quarterback.
"It's great to see the current and former members of the National Football League Players Association working together to take strong stances on the issues that are important," he said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., greeted the players before they met with her aides. "It's a thrill to see you. I can't wait to call my husband," she said to laughter.
When someone asked what side of the San Francisco Bay she lived on, Pelosi responded, "Well, we're in San Francisco." San Francisco 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes then rushed the speaker as if he were on a football field. "Gimme some love!" he yelled, embracing the speaker.