Will Barack Obama take it upon himself to end the National Football League impasse?
For reasons both atmospheric and economic, he should at least think about it.
With Monday's ruling from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that keeps the owners' lockout intact, there is a possibility that both sides will dig in, thus putting the upcoming season in peril. More than two months into the lockout and just two months from the scheduled start of training camp, the NFL is already way behind in preparing for the upcoming season.
Any lost games -- even preseason ones -- have an economic cost to the teams and the cities they do business in. The NFL Players Association estimated that each NFL city stands to lose $160 million over the course of the season, or $16 million per home game. Though these figures may be greatly exaggerated (the most conservative estimate is at $35 million per city for the season), there is no doubt that millions of dollars and thousands of jobs will be lost should the games be canceled.
A number of NFL teams, the Miami Dolphins among them, have already drastically reduced their staff or cut pay during the lockout. Keep in mind that each team and its host city hire a large number of people, from full-time employees who work in custodial, food service and media relations at the training facilities, to contract workers who sell souvenirs, clean up and provide guest services at stadiums. Not to mention thousands of cops and firefighters who depend on overtime income from working on game days.
The economy and jobs. Now do they sound like something President Obama should worry about? Left unmanaged, the damage from a lost season may very well negatively affect his re-election chances in 2012.
In 2008, Obama won 365 electoral votes, comfortably beating John McCain for the presidency. But since the Democrats' 2010 midterm election wipeout, combined with the reallocation of electoral votes following the 2010 Census, his prospects have arguably worsened already. And that doesn't even take into account the bleak employment picture that has persistently dogged his presidency.
Six states, each home to at least one NFL franchise, may just hold the key to his bid for a second term.
These six (North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado) all went for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, and they were also the states where Obama's winning margins were the smallest in 2008, ranging from 0.3 percent in North Carolina to 8.9 percent in Colorado.
Nine NFL teams reside in these six states (the Washington Redskins are headquartered in Ashburn, Va.). And if you take the NFLPA's estimates at face value, a whopping $1.44 billion worth of economic activity, not to mention tens of thousands of jobs, may be lost in these states from a canceled season.
If Obama should lose all six states (not a stretch, since neither John Kerry nor Al Gore carried any of them), his electoral vote total would plummet from a census-adjusted 359 to 264 -- the difference between winning the future and winning funds for a presidential library.
Moreover, even states the president won more comfortably in 2008 may be in play in 2012 after the GOP landslide of 2010. A total of 40 electoral votes could be up for grabs in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- home to the Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles.
Given this landscape, should the current impasse persist, it may behoove Obama to pick up the phone and -- to paraphrase the 44th president himself when he spoke of college football's lack of a playoff -- "throw my weight around a little bit." Obama can call any number of people, and it's reasonable to surmise that he may have DeMaurice Smith's number on his BlackBerry.
It's not that the head of the NFLPA contributed to the Obama campaign (he did), it's that "De" Smith was elected to head the players' union last year on the strength of his legal and political connections. He was largely unknown by the players he sought to lead, but Smith is a former colleague of Obama confidant and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and he's a former partner at Patton Boggs, a powerhouse law firm with an extensive lobbyist operation and strong ties to the Democratic Party. Three months ago, Patton Boggs adviser Frank Wisner was sent to Egypt as Obama's personal envoy to deal with Hosni Mubarak.
Professional sports are hardly on the same level as Middle East peace, but Obama can pick up the phone and lean on another Patton Boggs man to break the impasse in pro football. That isn't always enough, even for a president of the United States. Bill Clinton learned that lesson when he tried unsuccessfully to mediate the baseball strike of 1994-1995. But voters gave Clinton credit for trying.
If Obama does call and push him to make a deal, even the heretofore stubborn Smith will have incentives to comply. After his grand strategy of litigating instead of negotiating was shredded by the 8th Circuit, Smith doesn't have a lot of options left. Given his track record, it's doubtful that he'd be an NFL lifer, as his predecessor Gene Upshaw was. So his best course of action might be to cut a deal quickly, proclaim it was done in the interest of the fans, tell the players it was all worth it, before exiting gracefully.
Perhaps just in time to land a gig on Obama's reelection campaign.