N.F.L. Players Union Quietly Seeks New Leadership

It has been two years and Seattle Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs is still sore about how his union negotiated its latest labor deal.

In negotiations leading up to the March 2020 expiration of the old collective bargaining agreement, DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the N.F.L. Players Association, publicly opposed a push by team owners to expand the regular season beyond 16 games.

Yet weeks before the deal was set to end, Smith unveiled proposals for a new agreement which sought to extend the N.F.L. season in return for the players getting one more percentage point of the league’s shared revenue, up from 47 percent, annually, and the players could earn an additional one percentage point based on the growth of the league’s media deals.

With more than 2,000 players dispersed during the off-season and the country preparing to shut down as the coronavirus spread, the union ratified the agreement by just 60 votes. Diggs and other union members who voted against the deal still claim that Smith deceived them and gave in to the owners.

Dozens of pro football players, including stars like Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt, bashed the addition of another regular season game, arguing that their bodies already absorbed enough punishment in a 16-game season.

“I think there is some hostility toward the union at a certain point,” Diggs said. “I’m not saying our union is the worst. But at the end of the day, guys feel like that we could do better. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to trust everything that the union is telling you.”

Smith barely won a vote last year to remain in the job for his fifth term, which could end as early as 2023. The N.F.L.P.A. has started searching for his replacement.

That person will inherit the collective bargaining agreement — which does not expire until 2030 (and for which there is no early exit) — and a union with a history of conceding to N.F.L. owners, whose teams have skyrocketed in value while player salaries have risen far more slowly.

The league earns roughly $18 billion in total revenue annually, part of which is not shared with the athletes.

Players received 53 percent of the shared revenues in the 2006 labor deal brokered by Smith’s predecessor, Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman.

For comparison, Major League Baseball sets aside 48 percent of its revenue for teams to pay players; in the N.B.A., players receive between 49 and 51 percent based on revenue targets; N.H.L. players receive 50 percent of revenue, a portion of which is held in escrow.

Smith, right, and Commissioner Roger Goodell signed the league’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement, which will not expire until 2030.Credit…Jason Miller/Getty Images

But the N.F.L.P.A. has the largest constituency in American pro sports and has historically found it difficult to rally its sprawling membership to agree to fight for long-range issues, including improved health care, retirement benefits, and future revenue growth. Past agreements have ceded ground in return for relatively modest pay increases for players, whose careers last an average of about three years.

There does not yet appear to be a consensus among the players on who should take over the job or what that person’s qualifications should be, though some players were adamant that the next executive director have the N.F.L. playing experience that Smith, a former trial lawyer and prosecutor, lacks.

“You need somebody that knows what it is that you’re going through, that’s been through the camps, has been through the practices, has been through the business aspect, that knows what it’s like as a player to have to perform day in and day out,” said Tyler Lockett, a Seahawks receiver and the team’s union representative.

Other player union representatives said they are less concerned about being led by a former player than by a candidate with the skill to recoup from the team owners some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue ceded by the union in the last two contracts.

“I would like, personally, a guy with a big pedigree, just because you’re going up against 32 different billionaires and owners,” said Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus, one of the 11 players on the union’s executive committee. “These 32 owners are not animals, but vampires. They’re going to suck the blood out of as much as they can, and I don’t blame them. If I were in their shoes, I’d be doing the same thing.”

The union hired an executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to lead the search. Representatives from Russell Reynolds and union officials declined to discuss the search. But several people familiar with the process said that the firm has interviewed union staff about the position.

Player representatives from each of the 32 N.F.L. teams are expected to decide who replaces Smith in a vote at the union’s annual meeting in March. Smith is likely to remain with the union in an advisory role at half pay for an additional year. In the fiscal year that ended in February 2021, Smith earned about $4.5 million, according to union financial filings.

The union has been mum on potential candidates, but several people may be contenders, including J.C. Tretter, the union’s president. Now that he has retired as a player, Tretter, 31, must give up his presidency in March 2024 at the end of his term. Don Davis, 49, the union’s senior director of player affairs who played 11 seasons as an N.F.L. linebacker, has also been mentioned.

Other former players have raised their hands publicly for consideration, including Kellen Winslow, the Hall of Fame former Chargers tight end. Winslow said he has deep union roots, noting that he was a member of the Teamsters when he worked for UPS as a teenager and that he supported the N.F.L. player strikes during the 1982 and 1987 seasons.

He also pointed to his varied experience after he left the N.F.L. in 1988. Winslow earned a law degree, went into broadcasting, worked as an executive at Disney and as an athletic director for five years at Central State University, a historically Black school in Ohio.

Kellen Winslow, the Hall of Fame tight end, is among the former N.F.L. players who have emerged as candidates for the union’s executive director job.Credit…Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Winslow was also a co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which pushes for more racial diversity among the N.F.L.’s head coaches, assistants and front office personnel.

In an August interview, Winslow, 64, said he had been in contact with Russell Reynolds and that if he gets the executive director job, his first order of business would be reviewing the 2011 and 2020 labor agreements. He declined to pass judgment on Smith’s tenure.

“That’s not what a leader does,” Winslow said. “You’ve got to confer with those around you. You just can’t have that emotional moment that takes you or the organization that you’re leading down a path that’s hard to turn around from.”

Other potential candidates are less cautious. Matt Schaub, who retired after the 2020 season after 17-year career as quarterback with the Falcons, Texans, Raiders and Ravens, has posted messages on Twitter directly criticizing concessions made under Smith.

“Over the 20 yrs of the ’11 & ’20 CBAs, N.F.L. players will give owners at least $30B from what used to be the players share,” he wrote in June. “At roughly 2,000 players a year, that means each player gave up $750,000 per year.”

Schaub, 41, said the 2011 lockout that resulted in the players losing six percentage points of revenue to the owners was an example of the collective leverage a relatively small group of team owners has negotiating against a massive union with quickly rotating membership.

“The owners, the great majority are lifers,” Schaub said in an interview. “The players, we come and go.”

Schaub said he would be a greater presence in N.F.L. locker rooms than Smith, who he said has been too standoffish with rank-and-file players.

“He comes once a year and talks for a few minutes, and it comes off to players, they don’t know him, it doesn’t resonate,” Schaub said of Smith’s annual training camp drop-ins. “Players, they want to be led, they want to be told the truth, they want to be looked in the eye. They don’t want nonexistent leadership and meandering down a path.”

Ben Shpigel contributed reporting from Englewood, Colo.

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