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Union chief, current and former players plan meetings with Congress

WASHINGTON -- As NFL owners and players resume talks on a new collective bargaining agreement, the union's new executive director and 20 current and retired players plan to meet with members of Congress on Wednesday in hopes of building political support to head off a lockout.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, union head DeMaurice Smith said the group will remind lawmakers about the "gifts" that Congress bestows on the league, such as an antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts.

It might be hard to conjure up much sympathy for players making seven-figure salaries, but Smith noted that thousands of people work as stadium workers. "And 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.

The union and league held a negotiating session in Washington on Tuesday.

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 receive 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 annually.

NFL vice president Joe Browne noted that the sides just finished their second negotiating session.

"We're hopeful that matters can be resolved," he said. "It's a little premature to talk about putting stadium workers out of work in 2011."

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 that 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, told the AP that players are worried they might not be playing in two years.

"We want them (lawmakers) to know that we are genuinely concerned," he said.

In selecting Smith this year, the union chose Washington smarts over football experience. Smith, a Washington lawyer, served on President Obama's transition team and also worked for Eric Holder before he 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.

The NFL also has 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 Major League 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.

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