WASHINGTON - A senior House Democrat said Monday he will seek to eliminate the NFL's antitrust exemption for broadcasting contracts, the opening salvo from Congress in response to owners' lockout of players in America's most popular sport.
"At a time when the economy is struggling and the NFL has chosen to lock out its players, it is particularly inappropriate to allow the league to benefit from a special antitrust exemption," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. His bill will be dubbed the "Prevent Lockout of Athletes This Year Act," or PLAY Act.
But the committee's chairman, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, indicated he would not take up the legislation.
"The House Judiciary Committee will not consider any bill that attempts to interject Congress into the private dispute" between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, said Smith, who also repeated his view that both sides are "big boys" and Congress doesn't need to referee every dispute for them.
The 50-year-old broadcasting exemption, which allows the NFL to sign TV contracts on behalf of all teams, helped to transform the league into an economic powerhouse. The exemption also applies to professional baseball, basketball and hockey, but Conyers' bill would only rescind football's exemption.
Conyers' move follows the collapse of talks between the players and owners, which threatens the 2011 season. The players' union has decertified, players have an antitrust lawsuit, and the league has staged a lockout of players. The NFLPA has gone from being a union to a professional trade association.
In the months prior to the lockout, the union had staged several lobbying days by NFL players, urging members of Congress to use its leverage to avoid a lockout, such as ensuring the antitrust exemption is used in a way that benefits fans and the sport.
Joe Briggs, the NFLPA's public policy counsel, said in a statement that "there is a long history of review and debate over the continued need for antitrust exemptions by Congress."
The NFL did not respond to requests for comment.
Conyers said that more than football is at stake in the lockout, pointing to the financial impact on "economically ravaged cities like Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Buffalo. In that context it is appropriate for Congress to revoke an exemption that serves to unbalance the playing field between the parties."
Conyers said he would ask the Congressional Research Service to quantify the economic impact of the lockout, including its effect on jobs, local communities, and state and local tax revenues.