BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
Since the last time we visited the potential National Football League owners' lockout of the players next March, about 72 hours ago, it appears that are a number of people have become a bit anxious about the whole process becoming politicized. The NFL had some issues with the piece. Former players had their say and no one, it seems, wants this to head to Congress and the Oval Office.
Or do they?
One former National Football League player sent an e-mail criticizing this writer for suggesting that National Football League Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith should take some former players who are disabled from injuries that they suffered while working as football players in the NFL and bring them before Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The suggestion is that Smith have the players testify and ask the GOP leaders to their faces why those two Congressmen and one Senator, along with the others who enjoy stellar house and senate health benefits because they are in Congress, should repeal the law that was passed in 2010 which will allow Americans with pre-existing conditions who cannot get insurance to buy health insurance should be overturned.
The former player wrote, "I take issue with the political spin that you put in your article. You are right, every player has pre-existing conditions as a result of playing in the NFL. It is up to the NFL to take care of their players, past and present. It is not up to the American taxpayer to pay for the care of the NFL players, past and present. It is obvious that the proposed health care plan that Obama passed will destroy our health care industry. I am hopeful that Mr. Cantor and Mr. Boehner will do everything in their power to get the health care plan repealed.
"The NFL owners have incredible revenue streams coming in, and the players who make this possible should be protected by the owners. Football is a huge industry, and there is a tremendous amount of money being generated by the sport. Perhaps the owners could take a part of the revenues that they generate through licensing, and apply them to a health care plan for all players past and present."
The 2010 health care plan isn't too far from the proposed Republican plan of the early 1990s which Robert Dole championed. A number of former NFL players cannot get health care because of pre-existing conditions and they are getting government assistance whether it is Social Security or Medicare despite not being the retirement age which last time anybody looked was funded by American citizens.
The NFL and the NFLPA tried to negotiate a deal to provide health care to about 2,500 out of 3,200 retired players but the NFLPA wanted all the retirees protected and rejected the NFL's plan. The NFLPA wanted all the players protected and claimed a large group of former players would not be insured by TransAmerica because of pre-existing conditions.
That rejection brings the health care issue into the discussion and could be used as a reason to go before Congress, which under Boehner, Cantor and McConnell wants to roll back the 2010 legislation and there seems to be no GOP alternative.
The National Football League of today was created by Congress and two Presidential signatures. In 1961, two Democrats, Emanuel Cellar in the House and Estes Kefauver in the Senate crafted legislation that became known as the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 which was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy which allowed NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to take all 14 NFL teams and sell them as one entity to American television networks starting in 1962. Rozelle played off CBS and NBC and got substantial deals with CBS. After losing two TV battles to CBS in 1964, NBC chairman David Sarnoff decided to make the American Football League a real major league entity. He gave them a huge (for 1965) five year deal and football was flooded with money.
In 1966, the NFL and AFL agreed to merge but needed Congressional approval. Again Cellar was involved but two Louisiana Democrats, Russell Long in the Senate and Hale Boggs in the House literally traded their votes to Rozelle in exchange for an expansion team in New Orleans and the merger was approved. Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation which was on the back of an anti-inflation bill in October 1966 and within ten days, New Orleans had a team.
Additional federal legislation, specifically the 1984 Cable TV Act and the 1986 Tax Act, put more money in owners' pockets. That is why this will play out in Washington eventually.
The NFL-NFLPA dispute will start perhaps with a federal mediator, then the National Labor Relations Board, maybe Congress and maybe even the Oval Office. President Bill Clinton in 1994 summoned Major League Baseball owners and players to the White House in an attempt to settle the 1994-95 baseball strike.
To that former player, here is the answer not from this writer to the column of 72 hours ago of "How DeMaurice Smith can wreak havoc on a NFL lockout" but from an Associated Press story of November 18, 2010, which is entitled "The Influence Game": NFL union seeks Congress help. A note to the AP writer, DeMaurice Smith runs an association not a union. Apparently according to the story the NFLPA has a lobbyist, which seeming comes as a shock to the AP, who has been working Capital Hill since the summer. The NFL too is working over Congress with a lobbyist and both the NFLPA's DeMaurice Smith and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell have visited the White House.
According to the piece, the NFL's political action group contributed $600,000 in campaign contributions.
Goodell, it should be noted is the son of former New York Senator Charles Goodell, who was appointed to the Senate seat after Robert Kennedy was murdered in June 1968 and is married to a former FOX News Channel anchor Jane Skinner, whose father Sam Skinner is a former White House Chief of Staff under President George H. W. Bush.
Smith was on the Obama Presidential transitional staff and is a tight friend of Attorney General Eric Holder.
The AP piece, which shows how out of touch the Washington media is with reality has a disclaimer that appears in the middle of the piece — EDITOR'S NOTE — An occasional look at how behind-the-scenes influence is exercised in Washington — as if this is a news flash.
It seems health care for former players could become a major flash point in the battle between the owners and players. Right now the owners seem to have a plan that would cut the players take of the revenues from 59.6 percent of the revenue to 48.2 percent and cut players salaries by 18 percent. If there is no contract in place by March 3, 2011, the players — a good many of them who have pre-existing conditions could be scrambling for health care.
The NFL plans to use health care as a bargaining tool to get an agreement. The league issued this statement — "Regarding the funding of current player benefits if there is a work stoppage, here is what we have said: 'This is yet one more reason to get back to the bargaining table and get an agreement. But there is no question that a strike or lockout triggers rights under a federal law known as COBRA that allows employees to continue their existing health insurance coverage without interruption or change in terms — either at their expense or their union's expense. This means that no player or family member would experience any change in coverage for so much as a single day because of a work stoppage. The union surely knows this and there is no excuse suggesting otherwise.'"
In the public relations front, the league is assuring retired players that whatever happens with the CBA, they will get their benefits.
"I know that retired players and their families are watching the current round of bargaining between the NFL and players' union with growing concern," said NFL Alumni President and Executive Director George Martin in a letter dated September 7, 2010. "They want to make sure that their benefits will be secure and uninterrupted, no matter what happens in those negotiations. I have discussed this matter with Commissioner Goodell on several occasions, and he has always assured me that retired player benefits will be protected, first in the uncapped year, and then if the CBA its expires.
"I have seen the statements from NFLPA representatives that retirees will lose their benefits if the agreement expires. I am convinced that is not true, and have again asked Commissioner Goodell for his assurances on this point. He was unequivocal and told me again that he as Commissioner, and the owners as a group, are committed to protecting and funding current retired player benefit programs.
"In his letter to retired players, Martin said that he had received the following commitments from the NFL:
"First, no matter what the status of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL clubs will continue to make all required contributions to the pension plan, will continue to pay in full all pension benefits earned by retired players, and will continue to accept requests from vested players to begin receiving benefits as provided for in the pension plan.
"Second, NFL clubs will continue to fund the basic and supplemental disability plans, and the 88 Plan, and will continue to accept and process new applications even after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires. In addition, the league has pledged to work with NFL Alumni to develop new outreach programs to identify retired players in need of assistance and to getting those players the help they need.
"Third, retired players will continue to receive post-career medical benefits as provided in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, regardless of whether the agreement expires. Their medical benefits will continue on the same terms as today just as if the CBA were still in place.
That should come as good news to one player, an 11-year veteran who will continue to receive his $201.36 a month pension.
But former players don't seem to be too interested in helping DeMaurice Smith. "The NFLPA has been guilty of not helping the pre-1993 retired guys, and these are the guys who have medical problems from playing in the NFL. I don't believe that any of the guys will join DeMaurice Smith, and the NFLPA the way that you suggested because we have been discarded for many, many years by the NFLPA. The thought of using the discarded guys to help settle the CBA negotiations doesn`t sound good to me because of the way that we have been treated.
"During the historic trial that 2062 retired guys were awarded $28.1 million, Jeffrey Kessler, the lead attorney for the NFLPA built his defense around the retired guys being un-marketable, and worthless. He compared us to "dog food.'"
The high stakes battle is gearing up. Goodell and Smith are veteran Washington insiders. The battle is political and much more important than who makes it to "The Big Game" in February.