PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Troy Vincent is sweating as he keeps a good pace on a typically hot and wet June morning in South Florida, the place where his career as a defensive back began 15 years ago.
Vincent is training, but the goal now is different. The purpose of his long morning walk around the PGA Golf Course is more about mind and spirit than tackles and defensive schemes. Vincent is talking about his work as president of the NFL Players Association, which many people think will lead to him eventually succeeding Gene Upshaw as executive director.
Upshaw himself has said in many executive meetings that "the future leadership of the union is already in place," an obvious hint that Vincent should be his successor.
"It's something I'm very passionate about," said Vincent, a former Pro Bowl player and successful businessman, of the union. "I believe in the cause for the players. I know the things we need to accomplish in the future and I know what the fight is going to be like."
The passion in Vincent's voice starts to crescendo as he talks about preparation for potentially following in Upshaw's footsteps. He sounds almost like he's getting ready for a game.
"I've studied the opponent. I know what the owners are thinking and what they're planning. I've watched and studied (New England Patriots owner) Bob Kraft, (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones and (Philadelphia Eagles owner) Jeff Lurie," said Vincent, who claims he has been asked by two owners to take high-level executive jobs with their teams. "We're going to be ready for that fight in the next round."
While that's strong talk, Vincent may have to fight several rounds for Upshaw's job whenever it opens.
As both the league and NFLPA deal with the negative publicity regarding the pension and disability issue, there are internal questions regarding the union's future, though Vincent seemingly has the credentials to fill the post.
In addition to his involement with the game, Vincent has attended high-level business and management programs sponsored by the NFL at Stanford, Wharton, Harvard's School of Business and Kellogg's School of Management in past offseasons.
Though another team rep agreed, there was some hesitation: "The union has taken so much crap lately, I think there are some guys who wonder if we need somebody with a different vision … Maybe Troy will be like (NFL Commissioner) Roger (Goodell) and will have his own style and be a great change. But if he's too much like Gene, you have to wonder what that's going to mean for the union."
However, the issue for some is more than a matter of personal style and approach. Given the big dollars at stake, some constituents wonder if an NFL outsider is better suited to eventually lead the union.
"With the kind of money we're paying now for that position, there's no reason we shouldn't be looking at hiring one of the top labor lawyers in the country if that makes sense," said Seattle Seahawks guard and player rep Chris Gray, referring to the fact that Upshaw made $6.7 million in salary and other compensation last year. By comparison, NBA counterpart Billy Hunter ($2.1 million) and Major League Baseball union chief Donald Fehr ($1 million) make far less than Upshaw, according to the Sports Business Journal.
"Don't get me wrong, I like Troy a lot. We were teammates when I got started back in Miami and he can do the job. But if we're not looking at all avenues, we're doing a disservice to the union. Whenever Gene steps down, we have to look at the big picture," Gray said.
And look ahead to a big fight.
Despite the perception of labor peace and the notion that the union has played the role of loyal Labrador to the owners, there is a significant fight brewing behind the scenes. Many owners were unhappy with the last round of negotiations, feeling that the agreement put too much of a burden on a certain segment of teams to handle labor costs.
And contrary to perception, the issue isn't with small-market teams, but teams that lack outside revenue sources and are tied to public stadiums that keep them from getting a greater share of the pie. In addition, there is a feeling among owners who have to foot the bill for new stadiums that they are giving up a disproportionate amount of their revenue given the amount of risk they are taking.
"It's a very complicated financial situation for a lot of teams," said a team president who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's not about small-market vs. big-market. A lot of the small-market teams are flush with cash. I hear (Cincinnati Bengals) owner Mike Brown complain about the agreement and I laugh because his city gave him everything. He gets every dollar his stadium generates and the city paid for it. His problem is that he chooses not to maximize his stadium.
"The place where you have some serious problems are for teams where the owners are building their own stadiums. They're taking this great financial risk and the players are taking none. Yet the players get 60 percent of the revenues generated. That's absurd. If I'm Jerry Jones and I'm paying off his new stadium, I'm going to have some great concerns."
With those issues and other labor problems in mind, one of the key moves the NFL made after promoting Goodell to commissioner was to keep attorney Greg Levy, who had also been considered for the commissioner's post and had some of the most impressive interviews because of his labor expertise, according to league sources.
Or as another league executive put it: "The league is ready for what could be a really nasty fight with the union."
Vincent said he's prepared.
"I'm well aware of the issues the NFL is going to have," Vincent said.
In that case, wouldn't it make sense to hire someone similar to baseball's union leader Fehr to be the next head of the NFLPA?
"We can hire the lawyers we need to represent us if we don't already have them," Vincent said. "What the men who play in this league respond to is someone who has played, someone who understands what they go through dealing with the clubs, the owners, the coaches."
That makes some sense, but there's a growing faction of retired players who have been critical of Upshaw because he's a former player and not a trained labor leader.
"(Upshaw) convinced everybody that he could do the job as an ex-player and he has consistently failed," said former player Bernie Parrish, one of Upshaw's fiercest critics and who has twice unsuccessfully filed lawsuits against the union. "… Now, Gene has just tried to convince everybody that Troy Vincent is the next guy. Vincent sees the money Gene is making and he wants that now that he's done as a player."
If that's the case, Vincent is doing a great sales job. He talks about the problems that former players have brought up over the past two years. He is equal parts compassionate and straight forward. He plays the role of diplomat where Upshaw has preferred to verbally joust with them.
"For a lot of the men, they want to be heard," Vincent said of retired players. "They don't feel like they have a voice and, to a large extent, they don't. They've asked to have a representative on the negotiating committee, but we don't have room for the people we need to have on there right now.
"But we have to listen. We have to hear what they have to say so we understand the struggle they went through and what we have to continue to have to fight for … Do we need to get lifetime medical benefits? Do we need to increase the pension benefits? We need to look at all those things and work toward achieving them. But it takes time. Right now, it's a pretty simple situation. It's like this: We have $12 and we have seven different cups that we need to split the money up among. It can't always be done equally. Sometimes you have to put a little in this cup, a little more in that cup and a little more in the next one.
"The next time, you might put a little more in another cup as you have a chance to. That's where we are with medical benefits and pension."
It makes common sense. The question is whether Vincent will be the one to administer that common sense as the next union head.
- Gene Upshaw