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Goodell’s order reflects delicacy of NFL stance

WASHINGTON – The reported stance by Roger S. Goodell, the National Football League commissioner, that Buffalo needs a new stadium in order to keep the Bills can be viewed in many ways.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz viewed Goodell’s muscular stance as a move to hobble future discretionary spending on parks, child welfare, libraries and other necessities. The reactions of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to what Goodell said are not known.

Some saw in Goodell’s aggressive demand a reflection of the story by the ancient Greek fabulist, Aesop, about “the Fowler and the Snake.” Briefly, it relates how a fowler was pushed so hard to catch birds that he stepped on a poisonous snake and died.

Goodell’s stance also mirrors the delicacy of the NFL’s position in Washington. It is at the same time one of tremendous power, and of fragility. Its clout comes from the popularity of the game and the devotion of sportswriters and broadcasters.

But the league needs to spend lots of money to keep Congress and the White House happy. The main reason is that the NFL, which behaves like a monopoly, isn’t. It does not have blanket antitrust immunity that Major League Baseball does. The Supreme Court rejected antitrust standing for the NFL as recently as 2010. It enjoys limited monopoly status relating to broadcast arrangements, but nothing else.

A judge must still ratify its labor contracts. The fact that under law the league operates as 32 separate teams and not an entity makes it vulnerable to player complaints about injury and can create serious difficulties with competition, such as new football leagues, soccer organizations and franchising.

And any member of Congress – say, a powerful senator – can give the NFL fits like the late Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., did in 2006 when the Judiciary Committee chairman threatened to repeal or amend the league’s treasure trove, the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, which allows regional and national contracts on NFL games, and by inference, the right to black out games. At the moment, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is agitating, helpfully, to poke holes in the NFL’s blackout policies.

On the defense side of the ball then, the NFL has created a political action committee. It gives thousands to legislators like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose campaigns need no money.

Other beneficiaries of the NFL PAC include the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate, each party’s House and Senate campaign committee, and individual members, such as Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., $10,000 in 2012, and Schumer, $2,500 this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The league in 2012 spent almost $900,000 in campaign gifts. The PAC is run on automatic. Every owner gives to the political fund. The center lists, for example, donations of $5,000 by Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the year before he died, and $5,000 by his wife, Mary, who now controls the team.

The league’s largest expense here is for lobbying. That spending depends on the NFL’s potential problems, like labor. Outlays peaked in 2011, with reported lobbying expenditures reaching $1.6 million. Last year, it was about $1.3 million, and so far this year it is $590,000.

Like everyone connected to Buffalo, I hope the Bills play there for a hundred years and win many Super Bowls, but with the taxpayers getting a fairer break.

Yet, if things don’t pan out, Buffalo should realize that the presence of the Bills has had nothing to do with the prosperity of the region over the last half century, or the welfare or prospects of our young people.