Lamar Smith should talk to Jon Runyan before keeping Congress out of NFL labor dispute
WEDNESDAY, 09 FEBRUARY 2011 11:39
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
Should Congress get involved in the collective bargaining agreement talks between the National Football League owners and the National Football League Players Association? The answer is yes because Congress and two Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson actually created the conditions which made today's NFL a financial behemoth with the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 and the 1966 AFL-NFL merger. The two pieces of legislation gave the National Football League vast antitrust exemptions. Two other bills signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, which changed cable TV rules and the 1986 reform of the tax code also paid dividends for NFL owners.
The NFL seems to rake in more than $9 billion annually although the league refuses to open both team and league financial records. The publicly-owned, non-profit Green Bay Packers franchise announced a $9.8 million profit for the calendar year ending on March 31, 2010. But that is down significantly from 2007 when the franchise announced a profit of $34.2 million. Revenues are up but so are salaries since then.
Still, the NFL's smallest market is making a nice profit.
Additionally, there are a good number of former NFL players who are on government assistance whether it is living on social security disability insurance or Medicare. The "discarded" players have pre-existing conditions from football injuries and are uninsurable. Like it or not, these players are living on the government dole because the National Football League Players Association leadership never thought much about the players futures once they left the game.
The Super Bowl is designated as a "National Special Security Event" which activates involvement from the United States Secret Service (the group in charge of the event security), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which handles law enforcement) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chair of House Judiciary Committee, said Congress should stay out of the NFL's CBA negotiations. "That is a business dispute. The owners and players are both literally and figuratively big boys and do not need Congress to referee every dispute for them."
Congressman Smith is wrong.
In 2005, Congress decided to look into Major League Baseball's drug testing policy for steroids and other banned performance enhancement drugs after the International Olympic Committee put pressure on elected officials because baseball would not send big name players to the IOC's biannual sports event. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform swung into action after the release of Jose Canseco's book when he accused some of baseball's biggest names of using steroids.
In 2007, the NFL Network was scheduled to show the New York Giants-New England Patriots game on the final Saturday night of the season. New England was 15-0 and was bidding for a perfect season. The NFL Network was struggling to gain carriage agreements with big multiple system operators in the cable TV world. The game would be available on the NFL Network and a few over the air TV stations in Boston and New York by the lack of NFL Network cable penetration meant most of the country would not see the contest.
The United States Senate, led by Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter and Vermont's Patrick Leahy stepped in and threatened to look at remedies if the NFL did not make the game available beyond the NFL Network and local stations in New York and Boston. The remedies started with the Senate Judicial Committee examining the various NFL antitrust exemptions which could have included the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 and the various additions tacked onto that legislation over the years.
Not surprisingly, the NFL opposition to make the game widely available to protect the NFL Network or force cable operators to take the NFL Network folded and the NFL allowed the game to put the game on CBS and NBC.
Here is a suggestion for Congressman Smith. Have lunch with fellow Republican Congressman Jon Runyan from New Jersey and a former offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles and ask him about the business of the NFL. How Congress gave the league the tools for big TV deals, the 1966 merger, legislation that allowed owners to play city against city to get sweetheart stadium leases in the late 1980s and beyond. Congressman Runyan also must have first hand knowledge of the sad football stories that continue to surface such as this which was e-mailed to this reporter.
"My husband (name protected) played in the mid 70's to 80. We just saw results of neck MRI yesterday. — Not good, but helps explain severe headaches.
He remembers the game the injury took place and he could not move his legs and arms the next day. The teams reassuring remark to him was, get better because you have to play the next week!
"Five years ago he was diagnosed with brain damage. Trying to get NFL to agree there's physical, long term injuries in past NFL players is nearly impossible. They just keep appointing another committee to look into matter."
Congressman Runyan was once a member of the National Football League Players Association.
Here is what Congress did to build the National Football League. Before the 1961 Sports Broadcast Act, the Mara's New York Giants, George Halas' Chicago Bears and Daniel Reeves's Los Angeles Rams were getting the lion share of the television money which was available in those days. Green Bay, which was the league's smallest market, was struggling to get some money for the team's TV rights. Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Cellar got the Sports Broadcast Act through the House in almost record time, while Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver got the Senate to agree with the House quickly and President Kennedy signed the bill almost immediately.
The NFL, which was 14 separate businesses, became one entity for TV purposes which was clearly a violation of antitrust laws.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was able to get William Paley's CBS and David Sarnoff's NBC to bid on the 14-team league's games. CBS won the bid. In 1964, CBS extended the NFL deal with Rozelle. Sarnoff was livid and called the American Football League's New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin, who was working with MCA-TV and supplying some to NBC, and wanted to even the score. NBC gave the AFL a huge TV deal which gave the league the wherewithal to sign big time college stars. Werblin's Jets signed Joe Namath.
Both NFL and AFL owners began to complain that a bidding war was ruining their business and decided a merger was necessary to halt rising salaries. By the summer of 1966, Rozelle was summoned to do what commissioners do.
Initially neither Louisiana Senator Russell Long nor Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs were too interested in supporting the proposed merger. New Orleans was not getting either an NFL or AFL franchise and they didn't see the need to merge. Rozelle got Long and Boggs to sign on for the merger by promising New Orleans a team in 1967. There were a few other details that needed to be cleaned up. One of the NFL-AFL proposals was to realign franchises so that New York and the San Francisco Bay Area would remain one franchise markets. The merged leagues agreed to move the Jets from Queens to Los Angeles, Reeves would take his Rams to San Diego. Barron Hilton's Chargers would leave San Diego and relocate to New Orleans and Oakland would lose the Raiders with that franchise ending up in the Pacific Northwest in either Seattle or Portland, Oregon.
The NFL's old best friend in Congress, Emanuel Cellar said no to that idea. Werblin's Jets paid $10 million to the Mara Giants for the right to share the New York territory while Raiders owners gave $8 million to the San Francisco 49ers ownership because the team "invaded" the 49ers territory. New Orleans got an expansion team and Cincinnati ended up with an AFL expansion team although NFL owners collected the AFL expansion fee.
Those two acts of Congress propelled the NFL into the sports stratosphere in the United States and created the Super Bowl, or the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.
There is more than a century's worth of history of monitoring football in Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saving football from extinction in 1905.
If Representative Smith or Representative Runyon wants a brief history of Roosevelt's involvement in the game, they should go to the Theodore Roosevelt Association website and read up on Roosevelt's involvement with the sport although the website version is slightly whitewashed. In 1905, 18 players died as a result of injuries suffered during college football games, many others were badly injured but Roosevelt wanted the game to continue.
"Strange as it may seem, high school football, college football, and even the Super Bowl might not exist today if President Theodore Roosevelt had not taken a hand in preserving the game. As originally played on college campuses, the game was extremely rough, including slugging, gang tackling and unsportsmanlike behavior. Quite a number of players died (18 in just the year 1905 alone, with 20 times fewer players than there are today). Interest in becoming a football player was declining!," blurts out the website.
"But Roosevelt saw merit in the game. It built bodies and could build character, a sense of team and never giving up. Ten of the Rough Riders, the soldiers who fought with him in Cuba, gave their occupations as football players when they enlisted in 1898.
"So in 1905, President Roosevelt summoned representatives of the Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the universities who first played the game and who also set the rules of play) to the White House. In his best table-thumping style, Theodore Roosevelt convinced them that the rules needed to be changed to eliminate the foul play and brutality.
"As a result, the American Football Rules Committee was formed and, in 1906, plays designed to open up the game and make it less dangerous to play were introduced. Some of the changes made included, the introduction of the forward pass, the distance to be gained for a first down increased from five to ten yards, all mass formations and gang tackling were banned.
"Football became less dangerous to play, injuries and deaths decreased, and it became more fun to watch."
Congressman Smith is wrong. If Congressman Tom Davis in 2005 could call hearings before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to talk about steroids usage in baseball, if Congress can call a hearing on college football's Bowl Championship Series (and by the way, big time college sports has a tax exemption and antitrust protection thanks to Congress), Congressman Smith could haul NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith before his committee and ask what is going on with the lockout (which is being underwritten by various over-the-air, cable and satellite TV networks — FOX's Rupert Murdoch, now Comcast's NBC and Sumner Redstone's CBS are using public airwaves ad money while Disney's ESPN and DirecTV are using both subscriber fees and advertising dollars in guaranteeing NFL owners money in 2011 whether or not games are played. It would be interesting to see Rep. Smith's committee haul in Murdoch, Redstone, and others and explain them to explain away their decisions and whether giving NFL owners money to support a lockout is the best use of public airwaves licenses or in the cable/satellite TV area, whether using subscriber fees to underwrite a lockout is ethical, especially when most subscribers never watch the NFL games if ratings are to be believed.)
There is also the question as to why the American people, there is that political term that politicians love to say, are paying for health care for discarded players. The GOP is gung ho about repealing the Affordable Health Care for America Act, perhaps they could find some time as they control House committees and ask those involved in the NFL why the American people are paying for health benefits for discarded NFL players.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org