Many around the U.S. and the world found two great reasons to recently visit what is perhaps America's most unique city, New Orleans. The city's annual Mardi Gras was set to take place; as was the single greatest show on earth for one day: Super Bowl XLVII. When the NFL season began; many thought that the New Orleans Saints were set to become the first team in league history to play the dual role of Super Bowl host city and Super Bowl game participant.
Then came a dark, dastardly storm which was generated from the NFL's Commissioners office out of New York; the likes of which would have left Darth Vader, Darth Sidious, Darth Maul, and the entire dark side of the force Star Wars posse rife with envy and admiration!
The viscous thunder, insidious lightning and hideous clouds that were now going to be aimed squarely in the direction of the city of New Orleans and her beloved Saints football team would be sent before the ultimate Saint season could begin in the form of Bounty gate. The face of these vindictive, seemingly vengeful laden clouds bore a striking resemblance to the current NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell. Only these clouds wouldn't merely drop the usual New Orleans liquid, warm moisture, and move on. These clouds were here to stay; for a full season anyways. Bounty gate would cost the city of New Orleans as a whole; her beloved head coach Sean Payton and player Jonathon Vilma in particular, and arguably the most loyal and dedicated sports fans this side of the planet the one thing they wanted most: the opportunity to make history and play at home in the dome for the Super bowl.
While in New Orleans recently for both the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras; I had the opportunity to sit down with a gentleman who represents the National Football League's Players Association in the city of New Orleans.
How long have you been practicing law, and have you always been based here in New Orleans?
Since 1977, or 36 Years. I've had many cases outside New Orleans around the country but my offices have always been here.
How long have you been with the firm Frilot?
Since 1995. I had worked for a predecessor firm, and so I have been with the same group of lawyers for my entire career. We left a bigger firm in 1995 and then proceeded to form Frilot.
How long have you held your current role as counsel to the NFLPA here in New Orleans?
The recent Bounty Gate issue was the first big case I've handled for them. I have had a relationship with their principal outside counsel since 1998, and I had one or two small matters since then, but this is the first large matter that I have represented them here in New Orleans.
In addition to being the current counsel to the NFLPA in New Orleans, what realm of law do you specialize in for Frilot, and what does the firm itself focus on?
I specialize in commercial litigation, business law suits, contracts, leases, bankruptcies, competitions, distributorships law. My firm, Frilot, deals mainly with civil, defense law, insurance defense, and admiralty law.
How did you come into the role as counsel for the NFLPA here in New Orleans?
I had a previous relationship with a gentleman named Jeffrey L. Kessler who is the principal outside counsel for the NFLPA out of New York. He is a rock star in the world of sports law. He's a good guy and an excellent lawyer with a great team. We met when we tried a case here in New Orleans back in 2000... Mr. Kessler also represents some big Japanese companies. Well one of his clients; Panasonic, was involved in a big case down here and got sued. I acted as local council for the three or four years that it went on. We tried the case in Jefferson Parish, and have been friends ever since.
For those who haven't a clue, what are some of your key responsibilities and duties in your role as counsel to the NFLPA?
Well first off my role is limited to the litigation in New Orleans. The only time I have consulted with or acted as counsel was the connection with the litigation that was in federal court here in New Orleans. Local counsel, traditionally in any big suit, is someone who the client and outside counsel look to for guidance on local practices, the demeanor of the court, and basically the best way to get the mechanics of the case handled on the local level. The way my role as counsel shapes up is I handle the mechanics of dealing with the court frankly, that's what I do every day. I'll consult on various policies, but how to handle the lawsuit locally is about as far as I go. The NFLPA won't call me to ask me how to handle a dispute outside of what I deal with here in New Orleans... that's Mr. Kessler's job.
Do you have any opinion on Bounty gate?
Yes. I think Roger Goodell socked it to the Saints for some reason .I think former commissioner Tagliabue's opinion on the matter and action he (Tagliabue) took was a good ending to Bounty gate, so I don't want to say anything that may sound bitter about the whole ordeal -- it turned out well for my client, but it certainly killed the Saint's season.
There can be little doubt not only amongst Saint's fans but also with fans around the league that the loss of Head Coach Sean Payton in particular doomed the Saints' season. The NFLPA looks out for the interests of the players. Who was looking out for Sean Payton?
The principal difference that I am aware of between the players and the coaches is that the players have a union contract. That gives them procedure and processes to deal with any grievances. Whatever moves Goodell makes he has to go by that contract. I am not aware of any group contract governing principals for coaches. There is no collective bargaining agreement between coaches and anyone-so it's basically a one-off contract for each coach. I think Goodell can basically do whatever he wants, and they don't have any appeal rights. All coach Payton could have done would be to have filed a lawsuit, and I think somewhere along the line he made a decision not to rock the boat.
Do you feel that Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the role of the commissioner itself is too powerful?
That's a big question. The NFL is big business. But you have to have a strong boss, a strong leader and strong commissioner. He definitely has a lot of power. The position often turns into a function of each commissioner's personality -- that's just the way human beings are -- absolute power corrupts absolutely.
NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith wasted no time at a recent press conference down here in New Orleans during the Super Bowl when he stated that he felt Goodell's pursuit against the four players that made up the Bounty gate scandal was personal. Can you comment?
I certainly don't know enough about the individual player's background with Goodell to know if he was picking on them personally. I know and certainly respect Mr. Smith as he is my client. But I don't know enough to contradict him or enough to hold a background to his conversation. But certainly during the litigation, living here in New Orleans, you got the feeling that Goodell targeted the Saints to pick on, for a reason.
There was talk of a conspiracy on the part of Commissioner Goodell and possibly others being involved in a plot to keep the Saints out of the big game either for monetary reasons or as a way to get back at them for Bounty gate, or both. Did you get wind of any parts of these types of conversations?
Yes, there are tons of conspiracy theories to go along with that sentiment. Some say it was because he didn't want the Saints to be in a Super Bowl in their own city. I don't know how much reality is there, but it felt personal. The sentiment in the city was certainly that Goodell's moves were personal.
NFLPA President Domonique Foxworth soon followed Mr. Smith, and stated "The penalty (by Commissioner Goodell vs. the four Saint players) had to be forcibly vacated, so that doesn't move us in any positive direction as far as trust is concerned." It would appear to many that the prevailing sentiment is that there is still a stench in the air with respect to the current relations between Commissioner Goodell and the NFLPA. What in your opinion is the best way for all involved to move on?
Well Bounty gate had its effects, there's no way to go back and re-do history. We can all start fresh next season. Jonathon Vilma had a lawsuit for defamation and that was thrown out, and so were the allegations against the players themselves. I think that symbolically says that Bounty gate is over with. Go play football should now be the message to all involved.
Why do you feel current NFL Commissioner Goodell handed things over to past NFL Commissioner Tagliabue?
I have no insight as to the dynamics of how Tagliabue got selected. If it was Goodell's selection, perhaps he saw that he had painted himself into a corner and needed a way out. Litigating with the NFL is like litigating with the Russian army -- they don't back down and keep coming at you. The feeling was that he wouldn't compromise, so if he himself made the decision to pass things to Tagliabue, he is a bigger man than some might think. He knew he needed a way out. And to hand the baton to someone with as much stature and presence as Tagliabue was a smart thing to do regardless of who made the decision. The decision that Tagliabue made surprised everybody, but in hindsight he did the right thing. He didn't give the Saints a pass, but he let the players go, which from their standpoint was the right thing to do since they felt the allegations made against them was very unjust. So it was a sensible way to reach a compromising point that Goodell himself would have been unable to get to psychologically.