NFL Players Association Finds Itself at a Crossroads

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The New York Sun

The NFL season begins tonight, and there is no talk of labor strife or negotiations between the owners and players — even though the owners want a new collective bargaining agreement. There are three years still to go before the owners could lock out the players, or the players can strike.

But this much is known: The players are in no rush to fill their association’s post of executive director, which was left open after the death of Gene Upshaw. The players are now in season, and there will not be time to evaluate candidates to be Upshaw’s successor. Richard Berthelsen, who has been the NFLPA’s general counsel, has assumed Upshaw’s role on an interim basis.

The players association is at a crossroads, and the direction the members will take will have a major impact on the future of the NFL. The last time there was a strike was in 1987: NFL owners used replacement players and were able to break up the NFLPA, with 89 players crossing picket lines over a three-week period. The NFLPA decertified after the strike and sued the NFL; six years later, the players finally got a collective bargaining agreement, which gave players free agency after four years and a percentage of the league revenues, while the owners received a salary cap. The new deal, in conjunction with new television agreements, enriched the players, and it also had one other aspect that ensured labor peace: If either side pulled out, a poison pill would activate. The players would see free agency pushed back to six years, while the owners would lose the salary cap in the final year of the collective bargaining agreement.

Upshaw and the former commissioner of the NFL, Paul Tagliabue, extended that deal numerous times since 1993. Now, though, the owners think that the players are taking too much in revenue for salaries and benefits, and have decided to opt out of the current labor agreement, which now puts the league in an uncertain state.

Before his death, Upshaw warned NFL owners that if they pulled out of the deal that was supposed to have ended in 2011 — and if the 2010 season was played without a salary cap, as was agreed upon if there was no new CBA by that point — the players would never accept a salary cap again.

It is doubtful that Berthelsen and the NFLPA’s executive board will change their mandate, which is to keep the system as close to what it is now as is possible. Under Upshaw’s leadership, players’ salaries have risen to an average of $1.4 million annually. The ever-expanding NFL television deals have more to do with the increase than real collective bargaining, but Upshaw did understand that it was important to keep the players on the field and play the games, which enabled the owners to get more television revenue.

Upshaw was planning to be a part of the next collective bargaining talks, but before his death, two schools of thought were developing among the players: These differences might now solidify and cause dissent in the ranks that has not been seen in two decades.

On one side were the Upshaw loyalists, such as the president of the NFLPA, Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae. On the other side were renegades such as Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who wanted to see a change in the old guard. Last April, Stover sent out an e-mail to NFLPA members, urging them to dump Upshaw and bring in new blood by March 2009. Stover felt that with the possibility of new bargaining, it was time for the NFLPA’s executive board to be prepared for a change in leadership. Stover immediately received support from That was before NFL owners announced that they were pulling the plug on the present deal.

Because of the action by the owners, the March 2009 date now takes on an added significance. It is in that time period that the countdown to a non-salary capped season and a six-year free agency period in 2010 begins, as both sides will have roughly one year to work out a new contract. The owners seem to be rolling the dice, hoping they will get their way with the NFLPA and reduce the cost of players. Throughout history, the owners generally got their way, whether it was Ed Garvey or Upshaw leading the association, until the association sued and won in court.

Since Stover’s e-mail, the talk of replacing Upshaw has subsided. Upshaw faced mandatory retirement in 2010 when he turned 65, but planned on leading the NFLPA through the talks, so there wasn’t a plan to turn the association over to someone else anytime soon.

Just what the players really want will have a great effect on these talks. Upshaw’s approach to keeping the players on the field had worked for nearly 21 years, but are today’s players and their agents satisfied with it? Will the players and agents look to become more militant as the owners take a hard line? And if they do, will Berthelsen be a candidate to replace Upshaw, or will they go outside the football industry and seek a hard-liner as their new leader? Will retired players exert influence and urge current players and agents to think beyond their paychecks and look decades down the road, when football injuries catch up with them and get them to realize that the NFLPA has to make sure there is money in the till to take care of them? Or will the current paychecks suffice, and will the players care about whatever happens down the line?

There are other considerations. In April, the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. John Conyers, and Rep. Linda Sanchez told the NFL and the NFLPA to do more to take care of injured players, following a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Conyers and Sanchez warned the NFL and the NFLPA that if the two organizations don’t do more for players, they intend to hold hearings and possibly look into legislation to address the health concerns of players. Will that issue play into the selection of Upshaw’s successor?

There could very well be warring factions within the NFLPA, but that may not surface until next March — long after the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl — when players will finally get a chance to sit down and discuss what they want in their next executive director. The players will continue to make a lot of money, and that’s a given. But will they want the status quo of the current executive board, or will they want to go in another direction? That decision may not only affect the association, but also the owners, television networks, marketing partners, and, of course, the fans.

The New York Sun

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