The XX Factor

The Federal Aid to Football Program

Wisconsin’s unions may have to fight for the right of collective bargaining, but NFL players can count on it-and they’re using it. The last collective bargaining agreement between owners and players expires at midnight, setting the scene, as the NYT reports, for ” an off-season of maneuvering around negotiating tables and in courtrooms as the clock ticks toward the start of the season .” In the interest of preventing that dire fate-or worse, a lockout that prevents the start of next fall’s NFL season-federal mediator George Cohen has spent nine days thus far in negotiations with both sides. Slate ‘s Josh Levin points out that the NFL has ample cash on hand to get it through a work stoppage ($320 million) and a pretty big pie to share at the bargaining table (for starters, a $2 billion deal to keep Monday Night Football on ESPN next year). So who do you think is paying to mediate the differences between these two sides so that the money-making juggernaut can continue?

We are.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service provides ” neutral and confidential conflict resolution assistance to the nation’s unionized workplaces,” and it does so–in the interest of preventing work stoppages that would disrupt interstate commerce-“free of charge to the parties.” I found that a little hard to believe in the case of the NFL, so I called the FMCS and spoke to a representative there (John Arnold) who confirmed it. Yes, he told me cheerfully, the government provides mediation to the NFL for free.

As  Rachael said yesterday in reference to the House’s no-longer-green cafeteria, whatever amount this is costing the government, it can’t be more than an infinitesimal drop in our country’s ” household budget .” The full annual budget request for the FMCS in 2011 is $48,025,000 . And I can see the economic argument for providing mediation services to unions and employers. When negotiations fall through to the point of strikes and work stoppages, whether it’s transit workers or NFL players, there’s a cost to the whole economy. But the difference between the NFL and transit unions and agencies is that the entire $48 million FMCS budget is half what an NFL team might pay a single player over the course of his contract .

I love football. And maybe we can argue that the tax revenue generated by NFL activity supports its being allowed to take free advantage of this particular government service, and for funding it while cutting funding for family planning and community action agencies. But contemplating even a tiny bit of federal aid to the NFL makes me wonder what similar line items fill the budget while we busily end grants to programs offering domestic violence intervention, affordable housing initiatives, or family homelessness prevention . I’m not opposed to the federal government helping football get its act together. But if I’m supposed to trust legislators on both sides of the aisle to make budget decisions that reflect our country’s values and aspirations, I’d feel a whole lot better if they were making the NFL pay for it.