WASHINGTON – NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and union executive director DeMaurice Smith spoke face-to-face in New York on Wednesday, while more than a dozen current or former players were on Capitol Hill for face time with lawmakers and congressional staffers.
Union spokesman George Atallah characterized Wednesday's session between Goodell and Smith as "an effort to advance the bargaining," rather than a formal negotiating session toward a new labor contract. Atallah would not discuss the substance of the meeting in any detail.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello declined to comment via e-mail — and, indeed, would not even confirm that the two leaders were meeting.
The league and union acknowledged last week that they have not held a large-group bargaining session since November. The present collective bargaining agreement — it was agreed to in 2006, but owners activated an opt-out clause — expires in early March, and the union expects owners to lock out the players.
At an owners' meeting in Atlanta on Tuesday, Goodell complained that "there's not enough communication" between the sides. Also in Atlanta, Jeff Pash, the league's lead labor negotiator, took a swipe at the union by saying: "If our focus is going to be on litigating, on decertification, on meetings in Washington, on media events, it will be hard to get a deal done."
The union has held team-by-team votes to approve decertification, which would allow the players to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league if there is a lockout. The union also has filed two claims with a special master — one accuses the league of improperly assuring itself of TV revenues even if there are no games played next season; the other accuses teams of collusion in conspiring to restrict players' salaries last offseason.
On Wednesday, 13 current NFL players and three former players headed to the Hill, trading in helmets, pads, uniforms and cleats for pinstriped suits, colorful ties and leather shoes.
"The players are aware that the antitrust exemptions exist as a gift from Congress. The players are aware that the NFL has nonprofit status that's been given as a gift from Congress. So, look, we're not asking for anything. The players have been clear about that," said Atallah, the union spokesman. "Every business in America, especially a $9 billion industry, has a presence on the Hill. This is not negotiating through Congress. This is just players and employees sharing their issues with people that should care."
Joe Briggs, the union's counsel for public policy and government relations, wanted to make clear: "We're not asking for members of Congress to get involved in this fight at all."
The union has made previous trips to the Capitol, bringing players around to offices for meet-and-greet sessions.
Arizona Cardinals running back Jason Wright sounded, well, just happy to be there.
Calling Wednesday's visit to Congress "a neat little trip," Wright explained: "We're not here to accomplish anything; we're here to meet people."
Before players dropped by his office, Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, released a statement making it clear he doesn't think lawmakers should get involved with the NFL labor talks.
"That is a business dispute," the statement said. "The owners and players are both literally and figuratively big boys and do not need Congress to referee every dispute for them."