WASHINGTON - NFL players swarmed Capitol Hill on Wednesday, asking key lawmakers to take a tough look at team owners' profits as delicate talks begin over how the two sides will divide millions in television revenue.
As part of a daylong series of lobbying visits, the new head of the players union also urged members of Congress to consider the impact of labor trouble on retired and disabled players, who he said could lose health and other benefits if a deal is not reached soon.
The union's executive director, DeMaurice Smith, noted that even though the contract doesn't expire for two years, only one more season will have a salary cap. Once that goes, he said, so does the league's responsibility for funding its share of the benefits for retired and disabled players - a charge the league denied.
In a meeting with Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and several players, Smith said that he didn't have the 'luxury' of putting off a deal because of the impact on former players.
'I don't think it's morally right when a league makes $8 billion a year' for retired and disabled players to have their benefits cut, he told a sympathetic Sanchez.
Two years ago, Sanchez held a hearing highlighting problems that retired players had in fighting through red tape of both the league and the union while overcoming multiple surgeries, dementia and homelessness.
Sanchez told Smith that his predecessor, the late Gene Upshaw, seemed more concerned with current than retired players. Smith responded that the union has a 'moral obligation' to retired players, adding, 'We've all embraced change.'
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel told the congresswoman that in choosing a new executive director, the union sought someone who could help bridge the gap between the current and retired players.
Smith also asked for congressional help in getting the NFL to open its books, saying it's hard to negotiate a deal without knowing how much each of the teams makes. He said that Congress has leverage over the league because of the benefits it provides, such as the antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts.