WASHINGTON -- NFL 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 television money and other revenues.
During the lobbying visits, the NFL Players Association's executive director 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, DeMaurice Smith said.
The collective bargaining agreement 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 NFL's responsibility for paying its share of the benefits for retired and disabled players. The league denies that.
"I don't think it's morally right (for athletes to have 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," Smith said.
"I'm glad to hear that," Sanchez said.
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel told Sanchez that the union had sought a leader who could help bridge the gap between current and retired players.
Smith also wants help in getting the NFL to open its books. He said Congress has leverage because of the benefits, including an antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts, that it provides the league. That exemption meant the NFL could sign TV contracts on behalf of all teams, helping transform the league into an economic powerhouse.
Responded Browne: "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 Wednesday, one day after players and owners held a negotiating session 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 receive 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 might 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 and stadium workers.
"If I were working for the NFL, I'd want to portray these guys as overpaid gladiators," Smith said after a meeting with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. Surrounded by some players, Smith told one of the lawmaker's aides that the men are husbands and fathers who care about more than just football.
The group also met with Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. He told The Associated Press that Congress will follow the situation closely to "make sure that nobody's abusing the privileges that they've received."
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 an employee of the New England Patriots was caught filming New York Jets defensive signals during the 2007 season opener.
"The NFL enjoys a luxurious antitrust exemption, so Congress has some power," Specter told reporters. While stressing he didn't know yet who was right or wrong, Specter 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," Shuler 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!" Spikes yelled, embracing Pelosi.