NFLPA Names Smith as New Executive Director

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NFLPA will now be led by D.C attorney DeMaurice Smith

The 2008 NFL Season was all about unpredictability and the trend continued this weekend in Hawaii as Washington, D.C. lawyer DeMaurice Smith, pulled a monumental upset by winning a secret ballot vote to replace the late Gene Upshaw as the NFL Players Association’s (NFLPA) new Executive Director.  Smith, a 45-year old partner at the law firm Patton Boggs, was a relative unknown going into the March 15th vote. But he beat out three higher-profile candidates including former NFLPA Presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong plus attorney David Cornwell in voting by player representatives from the NFL’s 32 franchises.  All along most NFL media, including myself, thought that the NFLPA membership’s vote would come down to Vincent or Armstrong as both former players each had extensive backing from a variety of quarreling NFL factions.  However after the player representatives heard from all four candidates – March 14th initial candidate presentations and March 15th closing remarks – they selected the fresh voiced D.C. based corporate attorney as their captain in the boardroom.  Buffalo Bills player representative and defensive back George Wilson recently said of the selection of Smith, “His energy is impressive and he was very prepared in a way that you could see why he has been such a successful attorney”.

The selection of Smith now means that NFL players will call a non-player their lead representative — the first since Ed Garvey left office in 1983 — just like the three other major sports’ player associations. Hopefully Smith is up to the challenge of righting an organization that was once deemed “the weakest union in modern sports”, because there is a litany of landmine issues that the NFLPA will face in the near future.  Legally charged issues include an expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 (the current CBA pays players nearly 60% of football revenues that exceed $6 billion per year according to the owners), a looming uncapped year in 2010, players benefits, retiree rights/benefits, an economy where everyone including the NFL is struggling, a possible rookie salary cap, player marketing, television contracts, player conduct and so much more there is not enough space to write them all down. However Smith, a frequent commentator on MSNBC’s Hardball, has said his new position is a “calling” which leads you to believe he is going to roll his sleeves up to tackle the many challenges facing the NFLPA. 

NFL players by voting-in Smith, who by his own admission has never been in an NFL lockerrooom, decided that their union should be more about the “unity” of players (past and present) while keeping an eye on the “business” side of football rather than politicking, mudslinging, and living in the past (See the Upshaw regime and the campaigns of Vincent and Armstrong). Much like current President Barrack Obama, who has reported ties to the new NFLPA Executive Director, Smith gave NFL players “Change They Could Believe In”. Smith recently said in an USA Today interview, “To say that (the NFLPA Executive Director job) is purely a labor and management play is to miss about six or seven dominant issues that make up the business of the NFL each and every day”.  The former University of Virginia Law School graduate has been on the frontlines of corporate business law for years, including working with current U.S Attorney General Eric Holder, so you know he will be right at home talking the “business” of football.  And let’s not fool ourselves, the National Football League is all about “big” billion dollar corporate business.  Now the players will have a litigious voice representing them at the table with billionaires like Jerry Jones, Pat Bowlen, and Jeffrey Lurie.

I don’t know about you, but I finding it refreshing that the new NFLPA head will be about handling “business” and representing his constituency rather than making back-door agreements that may not be for the good of the organization.  Wilson added, “He’s the man, it’s a new day in the ‘PA.’   So now the play-clock begins on the Smith Era of the NFLPA and it will be interesting to see if the new Executive Director has an amicable or disagreeable relationship with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners he represents.  For now Smith is firmly at the helm of the NFLPA and he will need to stiff-arm the NFL’s many challenges that seem as mammoth as William “The Refrigerator” Perry to guide his players over the goal-line.

  

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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NFL Union Chief Gene Upshaw Dies

NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw Dies at 63 from cancer

(Philadelphia, Pa) — The National Football League (NFL) family includes players, coaches, owners, media, and everyone else that makes up “America’s Game”, sure from time to time family members may not see eye to eye on a lot of issues around the league, but one thing for sure is that “we are a family”.  That is why the devastating news that former Hall of Fame player and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw had passed away Thursday morning at age 63 from pancreatic cancer shook the 89-year old league right down to its core.

Some may choose to remember Upshaw as a 16-year Hall of Fame guard (1967-1981) on the vaunted Oakland Raiders offensive line that helped produce two Super Bowl championships or as the tough leader of the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) since 1983.  But one thing is for sure the NFL’s heart is very heavy for the loss of a man that was a respected pioneer who lived and breathed the NFL.  Some could even argue that Upshaw deserves a place on the NFL’s Mount Rushmore with the likes of Pete Rozelle, Jim Thorpe, Bert Bell, Art Rooney, George Halas, and many others who’s impact went far beyond the playing field.

On the field, Upshaw coming out of Texas A&M-Kingsville was selected in the first round of the 1967 draft with the 17th overall pick.  Some may have wondered if Oakland Raiders owner and architect Al Davis had picked an O-lineman too soon, but Upshaw (6’5, 255) soon vindicated the Raiders organization by starting in ’67 and not relinquishing his spot until his retirement in 1981, producing seven Pro Bowls and an five all-pro selections along the way.  Upshaw then joined his offensive line brother tackle Art Shell in 1968 and the pair were a stellar combination that kept quarterback Kenny Stabler clean and were instrumental in winning Super Bowls XI and XV — only player in NFL history to play in three Super Bowls in three different decades (60’s, 70’s and 80’s).  Shell, also a Hall of Famer, played next to Upshaw for 14 years with the men growing to be more like kin than teammates.  Shell said of the passing of his dear friend, “Today, our family and the entire football world is saddened and feels a great loss”.  Shell added, “Our friend Gene Upshaw was a dynamic leader on and off the field. Gene was a pioneer, one of the first African-American leaders of a major union. He was the equal of the owners in negotiations. He championed many causes, which made the league a better place.

Unlike most players who step away from the spotlight after their playing career, Upshaw broke from the quiet lineman mold by speaking up for players after being unanimously elected NFLPA executive director in June 1983.  It was in this role that the public grew to see Upshaw as he championed player’s causes of Free Agency, better playing conditions, compensation including revenue sharing, retirement, and labor negotiations.  It was in labor movement that I believe Upshaw distinguished himself — Part of CBA negotiations in 1977 (player), 1982 (player) and 1993 (Executive Director); plus was instrumental in CBA extensions in 1998, 2002 and 2006.  He helped the union revolutionalize the NFL by fighting for free agency by working through a player strike in 1987 where the NFL played four games with replacement players.  In the end, the players gained free agency and labor harmony has been a fixture within the NFL for the past 21 years.  Upshaw said about the fight for free agency, “It was the only alternative we had”.  He added, “The union is in place to protect the players, not the owners. If the union isn’t doing its job, it shouldn’t be there.” After being part of the team that brought NFL players to an entirely new compensation level, Upshaw was re-elected/extended by the NFLPA for seven straight terms including his last deal that was to have run through 2010 with the formerly broke NFLPA having $100 million in it’s coffers and another $100 million in assets according to union records.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of Upshaw in a statement, “Gene Upshaw did everything with great dignity, pride, and conviction.  He was the rare individual who earned his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame both for his accomplishments on the field and for his leadership of the players off the field.  He fought hard for the players and always kept his focus on what was best for the game.  His leadership played a crucial role in taking the NFL and its players to new heights.  Gene’s tremendous love of the game also showed in his wide-ranging support of football at all levels.  It is a sad day for the NFL, but Gene’s positive impact and legacy will live on for decades to come.  All of us in the NFL reach out with our sympathy to Terri and the Upshaw family”.

His wife, Terri, and sons, Justin, Daniel and Eugene Jr, survive Upshaw. 

  

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

Taking It to the House: Top 10 Greatest Offensive Guards

T.I.T.T.H Top 10 Greatest Offensive Guards

  1. Larry Little – Miami Dolphins (HOF)
  2. John Hannah – New England Patriots (HOF)
  3. Larry Allen – Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers
  4. Jim Parker – Baltimore Colts (HOF)
  5. Gene Upshaw – Oakland Raiders (HOF)
  6. Bruce Matthews – Houston Oilers / Tennessee Titans (HOF)
  7. Joe DeLamielleure – Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns (HOF)
  8. Jerry Kramer – Green Bay Packers
  9. Will Shields – Kansas City Chiefs
  10. Bob Kuechenberg  – Miami Dolphins

Honorable Mention: Randall McDaniel, Reggie McKenzie, Brian Waters*, Steve Hutchinson*, Ruben Brown*, Guy McIntyre, Russ Grimm, Nate Newton, Mark May, Shawn Andrews*, Steve Wisniewski

NFL Opts Out of Collective Bargaining Agreement

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Owners cried about losing money as they opted out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement

(Philadelphia, PA) – At the 2008 Annual NFL Spring Meeting, NFL owners while crying broke over salaries that now encompass 60% of yearly revenues, exercised a clause (had until November 8, 2008 to do so) by a unanimous vote (32-0) to shorten the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). The vote means that the CBA that was originally signed in 1993 and was subsequently extended including the last time in 2006 will expire in 2011 instead of 2013. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when making the announcement, “We don’t need further time to analyze whether this is working or not working. It’s not working”.   The Commish added “It was the ownership’s view that it’s not a failure of the negotiations, it’s a failure of the deal.”

The move was highly anticipated by everyone associated with the NFL as costs have risen so substantially that the estimated debt for the league was surprisingly reported as a figure of 9 Billion dollars — The figure, which had never been public before, was disclosed in a letter that NFL outside general counsel Gregg Levy wrote in October 2007 to the NFLPA in response to the union’s questions about a league resolution to reduce team debt. 

When contacted about the NFL opting out of the CBA, NFLPA President Gene Upshaw sarcastically said “My response to (the opt out) was very simple: What a surprise”.  The two sides need to figure something out as the NFL has enjoyed labor piece since the ugly 1987 player’s strike.  The good news is that the current deal is in place for three more seasons, but the threat of an owner unfriendly uncapped season in 2010 ( cap is $116 Million in 2008 ) definitely has to scare the owners.

It is hard to believe that a league with an $8 Billion dollar a year television contract, weekly sold-out games in almost every market, and almost three to one number of fans in television ratings than any other professional league is having problems with money.  However the NFL is partly to blame for their big economic problem.

  • Payrolls have risen $30 million in the past two years raising the cap to the aforementioned $116 Million cap figure, with some teams (ex. Buffalo Bills) having trouble keeping up.  The rising cap is due to players knowing they have to get “upfront money” since all NFL contracts are non-guaranteed deals.  Plus astronomical rookie deals like this year’s number one overall pick Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long’s contract with over $30 Million in guaranteed money are causing salary issues.  However where are the J-E-T-S getting the money to spend $142 Million in free agency, especially on known slackers like offensive lineman Damien Woody and linebacker Calvin Pace.
  • NFL Network launched in November of 2003 has not grown as fast as predicted by the NFL’s suits and NFLN has been rumored to be losing money.  The network’s struggles are definitely linked to it’s bloody war with BIG Cable (Time Warner and Comcast).  The two sides are fighting over where the NFL’s baby should be placed on their systems and for what price.  The cable fight has cost the NFL Network an estimated $250 million a year in subscriber fees according to a Philadelphia Daily News article by Paul Domowitch and I won’t even get into the legal fees.
  • New stadiums/palaces at low-interest loan prices with little chance for revenues (ex. The Colts new Lucas Oil stadium was built at a cost of $700 Million).
  • The lasting effects of the defunct NFL Europa still reverberating as the NFL’s ugly stepchild lost a reported $30 million per season.
  • Plus can someone please tell me how the NFL can just sit back and watch (probably with smirk) as NFL Films, the greatest sports storyteller ever, had to layoff 21 employees.  According to the same aforementioned Philadelphia Daily News article other NFL media driven “highlight” outlets are considered more useful than the venerable company.  Give me a break !!!

The NFL has vowed that there will not be another stoppage like 1987 by saying that even without a new agreement there will be no “interruption of play for at least the next three seasons” through 2010.  Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen cavalierly said about the opt out, “Is this an issue that’s so pressing that we have to do it tomorrow? I mean, we obviously have three more seasons to play”.  He added, “So I’m sure we’ll be spending lots of time with the NFLPA.”

The two sides need to get something done by March 2009, which will be here before the NFLPA and NFL Owners know it.  So the heat should be turned up on both sides making the sometimes too chummy organizations get something going.

In the next couple of seasons it will be interesting to see if this issue is resolved or festers.  For the fans sake, the threat of tarnishing America’s Game due to labor unrest should get everyone moving.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer/Analyst for BIGPLAY Football and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

 

NFL Retirees Go to Washington: Now What is Next ??

(Philadelphia, Pa) —Well the retired players took their fight to Congress, but we will have to wait and see who comes out the winner from the festivities. Several aging NFL retirees told Congress that playing professional football had left them with broken bodies, brain damage and empty bank accounts. Curt Marsh, an Oakland Raider from 1981-87, was one of the more compelling speakers talking about his leg amputation, more than 30 surgeries and multiple doctor visits before he was approved for disability payments. The retired players wanted everyone to know that the NFL and the NFLPA were not doing the right thing in terms of getting older retirees funds for disability from the league’s $1.1 billion pension fund. The lawmakers harped on the fact that the NFLPA only represents active players (no retiree representation) and that the union and NFL owners decide who sits on the panels that scrutinizes which retired players get disability payments. Congressmen took in all of the data and said they may get involved if a better pension and disability system isn’t created, which leaves a big ambiguous hole in the whole proceedings. But lets hope it does not get to that point. I am in agreement with NFL senior vice president Dennis Curran who said at the proceeding, “I don’t think a law change is necessary (for this problem)”

I believe the answer to this entire mess lies within the fractured family of current NFL players, NFL Retirees, NFL Officials, and the NFLPA. These entities need to figure out a better way for the large pension that is out there to be distributed equitably. When a past NFL great like Mike Ditka stands up and says “It’s right versus wrong,” and “It’s do the ethical thing or do the wrong thing. The NFL and NFLPA reported that $126 million a year goes into pension and post-career disability benefits for retired players and their families. They showed that their accounts pay out $60 million a year to those players, $20 million of it for disability payments. The big problem though is only 317 out of more than 10,000 eligible players are getting disability payments out of that fund, officials said. In order to make everyone whole, I am sure that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players President Troy Vincent, and NFLPA head Gene Upshaw will find a new way of spreading the pie out, so everyone can be fulfilled and the NFL can continue their joyride as the #1 sports entity in the world. For starters last week agreed to allow any former player who qualified as disabled under the Social Security system to be considered as disabled under the NFL-NFLPA system Another big hurdle will be the next time a Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached between the NFL and it players, because disability benefits and pension systems are set during CBA negotiations. In the most recent collective bargaining agreement (2006), payments from the pension fund were raised by 25 percent for players who retired before 1982 and 10 percent for those who retired after 1982.

The main thing is that in 2011when the current CBA expires, younger players will need to realize that one day they too will be retirees. Instead of going for all current $$$ they will need to pressure their union (NFLPA) to stuff the coffers for their own future while aiding the players that built this game as well. We all know that the NFL and the Commish will help clean up their own house and not keep their head in the sand ala baseball. I like that the system has been investigated and that in the next few years this fight will most likely become more quiet and we can then concentrate on the play on the field.

NFL Retirees Go to Washington: Now What is Next ??

Well the retired players took their fight to Congress, but we will have to wait and see who comes out the winner from the festivities. Several aging NFL retirees told Congress that playing professional football had left them with broken bodies, brain damage and empty bank accounts. Curt Marsh, an Oakland Raider from 1981-87, was one of the more compelling speakers talking about his leg amputation, more than 30 surgeries and multiple doctor visits before he was approved for disability payments. The retired players wanted everyone to know that the NFL and the NFLPA were not doing the right thing in terms of getting older retirees funds for disability from the league’s $1.1 billion pension fund. The lawmakers harped on the fact that the NFLPA only represents active players (no retiree representation) and that the union and NFL owners decide who sits on the panels that scrutinizes which retired players get disability payments. Congressmen took in all of the data and said they may get involved if a better pension and disability system isn’t created, which leaves a big ambiguous hole in the whole proceedings. But lets hope it does not get to that point. I am in agreement with NFL senior vice president Dennis Curran who said at the proceeding, “I don’t think a law change is necessary (for this problem)”

I believe the answer to this entire mess lies within the fractured family of current NFL players, NFL Retirees, NFL Officials, and the NFLPA. These entities need to figure out a better way for the large pension that is out there to be distributed equitably. When a past NFL great like Mike Ditka stands up and says “It’s right versus wrong,” and “It’s do the ethical thing or do the wrong thing. The NFL and NFLPA reported that $126 million a year goes into pension and post-career disability benefits for retired players and their families. They showed that their accounts pay out $60 million a year to those players, $20 million of it for disability payments. The big problem though is only 317 out of more than 10,000 eligible players are getting disability payments out of that fund, officials said. In order to make everyone whole, I am sure that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players President Troy Vincent, and NFLPA head Gene Upshaw will find a new way of spreading the pie out, so everyone can be fulfilled and the NFL can continue their joyride as the #1 sports entity in the world. For starters last week agreed to allow any former player who qualified as disabled under the Social Security system to be considered as disabled under the NFL-NFLPA system Another big hurdle will be the next time a Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached between the NFL and it players, because disability benefits and pension systems are set during CBA negotiations. In the most recent collective bargaining agreement (2006), payments from the pension fund were raised by 25 percent for players who retired before 1982 and 10 percent for those who retired after 1982.

The main thing is that in 2011when the current CBA expires, younger players will need to realize that one day they too will be retirees. Instead of going for all current $$$ they will need to pressure their union (NFLPA) to stuff the coffers for their own future while aiding the players that built this game as well. We all know that the NFL and the Commish will help clean up their own house and not keep their head in the sand ala baseball. I like that the system has been investigated and that in the next few years this fight will most likely become more quiet and we can then concentrate on the play on the field.