WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee is urging NFL owners to open their financial books to the players union, arguing that will help resolve a labor dispute that is threatening next season's games.
"Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to sort out this stalemate is for the owners and the league to answer the biggest sticking point: money," Sen. Jay Rockefeller wrote in a Washington Post opinion column on Friday. "What I'd like to see from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners is a simple display of good faith: Show the union your books. Don't keep secrets. If there are financial pressures that keep you from agreeing to the revenue-sharing plan proposed by the players, let's see the proof."
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., suggested that a neutral third party review the financial data, remove anything sensitive and prepare an assessment of the league's finances.
The NFL declined to comment on Rockefeller's suggestion, citing a request by federal mediator George Cohen that the two sides not discuss negotiations while they're in mediation. Those negotiations are scheduled to resume next week.
The league has previously said that the players union, which has made similar demands, already has access to all relevant financial information.
The biggest sticking point between the two sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. The current collective bargaining agreement expires next Thursday, and the union has said it expects a lockout to come as soon as the following day.
The NFL hasn't argued that it's losing money, only that it needs to keep a bigger share to finance costs like stadium construction.
Rockefeller acknowledged that "some owners make significant investments while managing a professional sports team and I don't want to play down their long-term expenses and obligations. But the players deserve a good-faith effort to demonstrate that these expenses are real and not just an excuse."
He said that so far, he's kept a "hands-off" approach to the negotiations, aside from conversations on the status of the talks.
But he also said that Congress, "acting in the public interest, has to keep the NFL on track because of the great benefits given to the league by federal law and taxpayer funds and because of its impact on the nation's economy."
One key benefit that the NFL enjoys -- along with other professional sports -- is an antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts. That exemption, which allows the NFL to sign TV contracts on behalf of all teams, helped to transform the league into the economic powerhouse it is today.
As to what the committee will do if the NFL doesn't provide the information, Rockefeller spokesman Vince Morris said that the senator is keeping all options open but is mainly focused on encouraging the two sides to sort this out themselves.
Gary Roberts, dean of Indiana University Law School in Indianapolis and an expert on sports, antitrust and labor law, said that whether an employer is required to open its books depends on what it argues during the collective bargaining process.
"If owners make representations that they're losing money or that they can't afford a certain term in the collective bargaining agreement, then they're obligated to prove their assertion," he said.