Strength and Unity: NFL Players Annual Meeting Day One

NASSAU, The Bahamas – Two years to the day that they were locked out by the league and its owners, the leadership of the NFL Players Association began its annual meeting with a vigorous opening session at Atlantis.

The 10-man Executive Committee and the 96 players representing their teammates on the league’s 32 clubs heard from Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, general counsel Tom DePaso, associate general counsel Ned Ehrlich, and outside counsel Jeff Kessler as well as the NFLPA’s communications team.

A record 57 of the player reps are new to their roles. They were welcomed with a presentation on how to serve as leaders of one of the nation’s strongest unions in a very tough labor environment.

Smith, who is in his fourth year in his role, outlined the  financials from the 2012 season, the outlook moving forward, and also strongly emphasized the history of the union and its ongoing fight for players’ rights as American workers.

“This union is about the people who step up,” said Smith, noting that several NFLPA leaders will be stepping down for the 2014 election as they transition into their post-football careers. “This is the year I want us to soak up the teaching [from the veteran leaders]. The owners believe that our players aren’t willing to stand up and fight. They will always think that because our guys play [on average] less than four years, that we’ll always be willing to give up to play one more day. Once we get in this room, we leave the game behind. We fight the battle between labor and management. We demand a safe workplace. We demand doctors who comply with the Hippocratic oath.”

NFLPA President Domonique Foxworth, who is one of the Executive Committee members whose playing days are history, issued a similar call, saying, “I encourage you to be aggressive and involved. You don’t have to sit in the background because you’re a new rep.”

Kessler, who has been arguing on behalf of the NFLPA in court for decades, reviewed the “BountyGate” cases at length.

“It was important because [NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell] tried to exercise his power to scapegoat four players on the Saints,” Kessler said. “This is a union that was determined to do everything it could to protect the rights of those players.”

First, the NFLPA argued that Goodell had exceeded his powers by trying to govern money received outside of their contracts by their coaches. When Goodell resisted that challenge, the union filed a lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans. After the newly formed independent appeals panel vacated all of the suspensions, Goodell passed his disciplinary role onto his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue. And when the former commissioner agreed with the NFLPA that it must be provided with all relevant evidence, documents and witnesses, “it was a big victory for us,” Kessler said.

The ongoing case in which the NFLPA alleges that the NFL and its teams engaged in collusion to repress salaries during the uncapped 2010 offseason hasn’t been a big victory yet. However, Kessler and Co. continue to pursue the fight before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

DePaso announced that the NFLPA had won 31 percent of its grievances filed for violations of on-field conduct and uniform policy in 2012 compared to 21 percent in 2011. He also discussed termination pay and the importance of full medical disclosure to teams to prevent them from asking for the return of signing bonuses.

Ehrlich discussed the worker’s compensation system, the NFL’s reluctance to have cases heard in worker-friendly California and how players can make successful challenges to receive what they deserve. All the NFLPA attorneys involved in worker’s comp cases will convene for a conference from April 11-13 in Las Vegas.

Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah and his staff outlined their continuing efforts to get the word out about the good works that NFL players do in their communities and about the importance of players establishing relationships with the media.

By David Elfin

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