While there's only one game left in the NFL season, there's still plenty of political football being played in Washington, D.C. And the result of this game will shape the sport and the country for years to come.
Last Wednesday, several NFL players took to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers about the looming lockout. Their primary message was that a lockout would have severe economic consequences for local communities. (The consequences likely won't be as drastic as the NFLPA have portrayed them, but some businesses and workers will be affected.) The media lapped up the images of the giant (mostly) linemen in their dress suits, standing on the steps of the Capitol.
In an effort to dampen the public relations impact of the visit, the NFL (owners) accused the players of trying to get Congress involved.
"This deal will be reached at the negotiating table, not in the halls of Congress," said chief NFL lobbyist Jeff Miller, a former counsel to Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis. "We don't think a third-party intervention, whether it's for Congress or anyone else, helps you get a deal here."
The accusations from the NFL regarding congressional involvement are laughable considering that the NFL has spent millions of dollars the last few years lobbying Congress.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics:
During the first nine months of 2010, the NFL spent nearly $1.1 million on federal lobbying efforts, easily putting it on pace to exceed the $1.31 million it spent for all of 2009. As recently as 2006, the NFL's federal lobbying output stood at a relatively paltry $380,000.
And from January to September of last year (fourth quarter data will be out later this month), the NFL employed a team of 24 federal lobbyists -- enough to field a full offense and defense, plus a kicker and punter.
First off, 24 lobbyists working full-time for the interests of NFL owners?!? Second, looking at how much the NFL has increased its lobbying expenditures in the last couple years , one thing is clear - they've been gearing up for a nasty labor dispute for a long time now. They even created a political action committee (NFL PAC) to For them to start complaining about the players approaching Congress is absurd.
The players have also spent more money than ever lobbying Congress, but their $340,000 (through the first nine months of 2010) is a fraction of what the owners have spent. (And they don't have a PAC.)
The primary goal of owners' lobbying efforts is for Congress to stay out of the dispute. And Congress is certainly not anxious to get involved.
"When it comes to their negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement, that is a business dispute," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a statement. "The owners and players are both literally and figuratively big boys and do not need Congress to referee every dispute for them."
With all due respect to Rep. Smith (whose most recent re-election campaign received $10,000 from the NFL), this is more than a business dispute. The public is already involved. Fans and taxpayers have spent over $6.5 billion subsidizing NFL stadiums. They didn't pay for empty stadiums and empty stadium districts.
Where are the dozens of lobbyists working for the best interests of fans? Where are the high-paid public relations firms framing the issue on behalf of fans?
There is one organization that's doing its best with its (comparatively) limited resources: Sports Fans Coalition.
The same day players were on Capitol Hill, Sports Fans Coalition was over at the White House, briefing staff on the looming lockout and our efforts to Save Next Season. We made it clear that fans will not accept missed games next fall and that we have invested billions of dollars into growing the NFL into something so profitable that the owners and players are now willing to stop the games to fight over how to split up those profits.
If the labor dispute drags on past March 4, it is inevitable that Congress will get involved and the President will eventually be forced to weigh in. When that time comes, fans need to be organized into one giant collective voice. (Incidentally, if there are any lobbying firms, lobbyists and/or public relations firms in DC who want to make a name for themselves by representing fans on this issue - pro bono, of course - now's the time to get involved.)
Owners may have the wealth and players may have their star power, but the fans have numbers. Let's use them so that we end up winning this fight.
Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.