The primetime televised NFL Draft this week reminds us of the riches young men can find being employed as a professional football player. A straight-to-DVD documentary of the NFL off-season thus far could be titled "GMs Gone Wild" with headline wheelings and dealings occurring almost daily. Few are paying more attention than the new NFLPA regime, led by DeMaurice Smith. The year-old NFLPA leadership inherited a lot of hot issues from the sudden passing of predecessor union head, Gene Upshaw. Over eggs, oatmeal and $8 coffees at W Hotel in Manhattan, assistant executive director of external affairs for NFLPA George Atallah and I got to know each other a little bit. Then the affable union spokesman went on the record with me for 5 questions.
On Star Trek, Star Fleet members had a prime directive. Whenever they went to another planet they could pretty much do whatever they wanted except no Star Fleet personnel could interfere with the healthy development of sentient alien life and culture even to save their lives and/or their ship. What is the prime directive of today's NFLPA?
Above all the union exists to protect the players and serve their interests. The biggest issue above all is the health and safety of our players. I didn't play football, but I have done my home work. On the history of this, everything points to the rise of a union as a result of health and safety issues. Players in the 50's fought for clean socks and jocks. That was the cry. Players in the 70s pushed for rule changes to eliminate things like spearing. Today our challenge is identifying those health and safety issues that will keep players healthier longer because the time they have in the game is short. Our challenge is how we transcend that on-the-field health and safety and take them beyond. I think that's really the core prime directive of the NFLPA: health and safety issues.
As we are now learning many of the health and safety issues for NFL players do not manifest until after their active playing careers. Recently there has been a lot of front page news about a workers compensation loophole in California, permitting a cause of action for former NFL players who have been denied that standing elsewhere. Why would the NFLPA not come out with full-throated support for these claimants and their attorneys?
We already have ethical guidelines and standards for all workers comp attorneys across the country. For any attorneys on our board, we already provide them with guidelines on how to engage with players and make sure players' interests are met and treated fairly. The flip side of this is our obligation to players. Ask any active player today about their workers comp rights. I am confident every single one of them will understand their rights to workers comp and what that benefit means to them. In fact, so much so, that the Saints proposed a bill to take that right away from players, just last week. The team proposed legislation in Baton Rouge to fundamentally change the way players claim workers comp. We've been fighting since we found out about it. The NFLPA has fought this battle for years. The California case is obviously of interest to us. Internally we've started to look at the relations between our board of attorneys and what our role is as a Players Association. We've always been a conduit. We've always been a place where players seek out the best advice and we refer them to people on our board. But certainly when something like [California] comes up there's naturally a reexamination of that process.
Certainly you're not against what's going on in California?
Frankly wherever a player can get their right to workers comp, that they've been injured, if that's where they can get it then we want them to be aware of that.
Before you were employed by the NFLPA year ago, a 2008 a Federal Jury in San Francisco awarded 28.1 million dollars to retired NFL players in their suit against the NFLPA finding that the union intentionally tried to cut the retired players out of lucrative revenue in deals with EA sports, trading cards and other sponsorship agreements. When I read that in 2008 I said to myself, "Gee, that sounds like a just result." What did you think to yourself when you read about it in 2008?
We settled that suit. The reason the NFLPA settled the suit, it wasn't a question of legal rights, it was a question of what does this union stand for and what is the right thing to do. When DeMaurice Smith and I -- before we were a known entity anywhere -- examined the business of football and the relationship it had with it's players -- the first thing that stood out to us was the what that law suit signified. That was one of the first things we wanted to fix. The number, the figure - people have argued that if we appealed we would have won. Look, I'm not a lawyer but I'd tell you that was a situation that was a fight for what the union stood for, more than a lawsuit.
So you feel like the fact that the former players were finally compensated was a statement that the union stands for players interests being met whether they be active or retired?
We represent players, period. Whether they played in the 60's or on the field today or being drafted this week. That's our mission. If we have a prime directive, that pretty much 1A.
So let's get to two big issues everybody is talking about: concussions and brain damage. I think about this a few ways. When a person decides to participate in a certain activity they assume the risk. Or, we should try to protect as best we can anybody who is participating in our risky sports. Or both - they assume the risk, protect them as best we can and understand that it's a violent sport and permanent damage will likely result. In any case, what can you really do about brain injuries safety-wise and compensation-wise?
A lot. And you're right to look at this as a comprehensive process/issue. The concussion issue is one that has drawn a lot of attention and it has the most impact. There are players missing fingers. There are players whose backs ache. There are players who have chronic arthritis. There are players who can't hold their kid because their arms are too sore. So the health and safety issue is not just about head trauma. The health and safety issue is about the life cycle of a player - making sure they are educated about what the best equipment is, giving them the choice of what the best helmets are, making sure that they have access to independent medical experts. And then when they leave the game make sure their health care benefits are such that are specialized to their needs based on what they've gone through. So, it's not just one issue we look at. This is one that definitely keeps us up at night. And when we go into a locker room one of the first things we tell a player is that we're not gonna stand here at a conference ten years from now and see you, Jeff Saturday, hobbling around because we didn't do our job to make sure you had the information.
But you must admit that football and boxing are sports in a unique position where the likelihood of brain trauma is so much higher than in almost any other profession. What do you tell players about that?
I think players are acutely aware of the risk, frankly. I had a chance to meet again with Tim Tebow last night. He suffered a major concussion at Florida. He said that hit was part of the game. He understood what the risks were for him to be out there again. What we were able to do was push for the answers to the questions: "Was he wearing the best helmet to protect his head? What was his treatment like after he got the concussion? Ten years ago that guy would've been in practice the next day is my guess. But we've made some big strides already and not to make light of the risks associated with playing, but with awareness I do think you can make the game safer. You're never going to take hitting away from the game of football. Then it's just not going to be football.
Honestly, do you really think it's possible to remove the high percentage of likelihood of brain trauma from professional football?
Do I think it's possible? Possibly. I think we can certainly make things safer. Kudos to the league for the rule changes the league made on spearing. The injury rates that have come from that simple rule change have diminished. The defenseless receiver rules for hits to the head that was recently changed, that will help too.
What about just saying, "It is what it is. It's a violent sport and players assume the risk?"
You can still limit the risk. Our goal is to make that risk as small as possible If there's a way to eliminate it, obviously we'll do it without the changing the essence of what the game is.
In preparation for this interview I tried to think, What could be the biggest nightmare scenario for the NFLPA?. I thought it might be this, and I wonder if you have this nightmare: There is talk today of ownership lockout. In 1987 there was a player strike and replacement players played for four games and all the games counted. Financially stressed, striking players began to cross the picket line. And in the final game with replacements on a Monday Night Football game between the all-replacement Washington Redskins and the partial replacement Dallas Cowboys with huge stars who had returned - Danny White, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, ed Too Tall Jones. The replacement Redskins stunned the Cowboys with their stars, winning 13-7. Now I've read where you and others have said in the context of NFL labor negotiations that NFL players are not "labor" they are "product." But I wonder if those replacement games show that the player-product is fungible and the game is really the product and that people will watch the games no matter what names are on the back of the jerseys. And if that could be demonstrated, like it may have been on the 1987 Redskins-Cowboys Monday Night game, isn't that the biggest nightmare for a professional sports players union?
I grew up a football fan. I am an unabashed Giants fan. The only way I think I can answer that question is that my relationship with my favorite team is a very unique marriage between the players that played during the time I began watching the Giants and the franchise that is the Giants. I do not think you can't have one without the other. That being said, I don't wear a Lawrence Taylor jersey because it's a Giants jersey. I wear it because he played on my favorite team and he's the best player I grew up watching. You look at Saints fans today. They came from wearing bags over their heads years ago to wearing Drew Brees jerseys -- for what he symbolized and what he means to the team and to the game. You couldn't have somebody else replace him and his meaning to the game and franchise.
But, for example, look at the New England Patriots. Drew Bledsoe - beloved - goes down and them this unknown guy named Tom Brady steps in. Everybody loves him and Bledsoe goes to Buffalo. Tom Brady goes down. Rich Gannon steps in. Who is he? Who knows him? He becomes a big star. Does it matter who is in the uniform, really, as long as their in your teams' uniform?
I happen to think it does. I do. People know this about me. I am a huge fan of the game. Players move, they get traded. You see what the Jets did this offseason. Yeah the team matters, for sure. There's no denying there's a great team association. But the flip side is the Jets are historically the miserable winning-less Jets without Mark Sanchez stepping in; a unique player with a unique personality that helped take them to the playoffs. And Brady is Brady because he took them to three Super Bowls. Historically the connection is not just with the team it's with the player. The Dallas Cowboys fans will forever remember Troy Aikman and Emmit Smith even though he spent his last year in Arizona. He's not a Cardinal he's a Cowboy. So it's not a worst nightmare for me to think players can be replaced with just any old Joe. There's a unique relationship there that can't be explained,
So the player elevates the game, the game doesn't elevate the player?
There's no question in my mind that that's the case. I wish we (the Giants) had a guy returning kicks as well as Dave Meggett. That guy elevated the game for me because he was a yesteryear Darren Sproles. I watched him be an electrifying returner. I loved his style of play. he made me like my favorite team even more.
But Meggett no longer plays for Giants yet you're still a Giants fan.
And I root for them. But I guess that's what I want these players to live up to -- the legacy and standard that the former players on my favorite team lives up to. It be interesting to see what other fans of the game think.
To wit, I read a study published this week in Sports Business Journal that was conducted by Octagon where they measured consumer behavior motivations of fans in four major professional sports - NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. "Team devotion" for NFL was highest percentage "passions driver" by far and "player affinity" was the lowest. Of course, consumer research is always vulnerable. My question here was not inspired by that research but by the 1987 replacement Redskins win over the Cowboys star regulars and what that may have revealed.
It is a very interesting proposition and one we recognize. A challenge NFL players have is what I like to call a helmet problem. You've got your helmet on, the team mark , the number on the back and it's "Go number whatever!" But I think the new generation players are recognized -- from long snapper to quarterback - as an entity in and of themselves.
Player equals brand.
That's exactly right. So just like I root for Dominick Hixon #87 to return kicks the way Dave Meggett did, there's that link to my player and my teams. Ask any Packers fan about Aaron Rodgers. Of course they will root for the Packers and for Rodgers to do well. But why? The want him to exceed the high standard Brett Favre had all those years, and Bart Starr and so on.
And Don Majkowski!
Sure. (laughter). I think the team affinity measure is great for the growth of the game, but I think the connection of every fan to a player is equally significant.