demaurice Pro football's pre-game head game

As the Saints and Colts gear up for Sunday’s Super Bowl, the National Football League’s team owners and players are laying the groundwork in Washington for their own clash over a new labor contract.

Both sides have employed well-connected lobbyists and are spending record amounts. The league’s advocacy bills peaked last year at $1.3 million, while the NFL players union spent $200,000 — double what it spent in 2008 — on hired guns.

The owners are making their first-ever political donations via the Gridiron PAC, a political action committee created just two years ago. Meanwhile, the players are roaming Capitol Hill and warning star-struck lawmakers of a potential lockout.

Of course, the negotiations aren’t anywhere close to such a dramatic moment. If an agreement isn’t reached by March 1, the league would enter next season without salary restrictions, but any strike or lockout wouldn’t come until after that, if at all.

So what’s really happening in Washington? Call it pre-game head games, with the players union angling to bring Congress onto its team and the owners hoping to keep it on the sidelines.

“I would say it’s part Kabuki dance, but sometimes the Kabuki dance can have an impact,” said Steve Ross, a sports law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

George Atallah, a spokesman for the players union, said it is upping the pressure because “we’d like to get a deal done before the uncapped year, when we would have to go into the great unknown and then have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Atallah said the players are up against “a Goliath,” given that the owners have been lobbying Capitol Hill for years. “There are two things Congress grants the NFL — nonprofit status and antitrust exemptions,” he said. “What we are saying is that Congress has a responsibility to oversee an entity for which it grants pretty significant” benefits.

The House Judiciary Committee appears to be the union’s favorite venue, which should be no surprise given where the union’s top strategists came from.

DeMaurice Smith, a former Patton Boggs attorney, was hired last March to serve as the union’s executive director after he vowed to get a congressional review of the league’s limited antitrust exemption if it doesn’t negotiate in good faith.

His chief outside lobbyists are Patton Boggs’s Jonathan Yarowsky and Kristen Wells, both of whom are former attorneys on the House Judiciary Committee.

In the past year, the committee has held three hearings — including one Monday in Texas — on the health issues to players caused by repeated head injuries suffered in games and at practices. It’s a serious issue that lawmakers undoubtedly are serious about. But when some committee members began threatening the antitrust status of the league during those hearings, it prompted the owners to wonder about the committee’s real message.