As the NFL Players Association prepares to pay its last respects to the late Gene Upshaw, there is a debate not only of who should lead the union but also what type of person should become the next executive director.
Should it be "some white dude, labor attorney in a pastel green shirt with a blue blazer and nice loafers who talks about gross revenue" or someone who can "simplify the message so that the players in the meetings can understand it?" former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer put it Wednesday.
"Look, I'm not an expert on labor issues, but I understand what happens in those meetings when the union comes in and tries to explain issues to a bunch of players who don't really even want to be in the meetings," said Dilfer, who played for 14 years before retiring this offseason and joining ESPN as an NFL analyst. "If it's somebody who doesn't know how to talk their language, (the players) tune out right away and just want to get out of there faster … you hear it all the time, 'We just had two practices, I'm tired, I just want to go home.' .
"With Gene – and I know plenty of people had their disagreements with him – but at least whenever he was at the meetings, guys would sit up because he could talk their language and he spoke with conviction. Look, we're football players, most of us didn't get here because we studied labor law in college. But the snot-nosed 24-year-old rookie who didn't pay attention most of the time paid more attention when Gene spoke."
Welcome to the debate over labor expert vs. plain-speaking former player. On Tuesday Sept. 2, the NFL will pay its final respects to Upshaw, who died from complications of pancreatic cancer at age 63 on Aug. 21, at a service to be held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. But before and after, there will be plenty of philosophical discussions on how to proceed for the long term in his absence.
While people with close ties to the union, such as former presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong, have politely declined to publicly discuss the future head of the union, that hasn't stopped speculation about the post. For now, long-time union attorney Richard Berthelsen is serving as acting executive director and has stated that he will stay with the union through at least the upcoming labor talks with owners over the collective bargaining agreement.
Vincent, Armstrong, Berthelsen and outside attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who helps with the CBA negotiations, have all been mentioned as candidates for the high-powered and high-paid position. In 2007, Upshaw received more than $6 million in compensation. Given that figure and the upcoming negotiations (there is a March deadline for extension of the current CBA), a significant segment of player representatives from each of the NFL's 32 teams have expressed a desire for a labor expert as the next executive director. Specifically, at least six representatives have said they would like to interview labor attorneys with backgrounds similar to Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Donald Fehr.
"With the type of money we're paying for that position, we should have the pick of just about anybody we would want," said a player rep, who did not want to be identified because he didn't want his opinion known by possible candidates. "We have to examine this carefully. I know there are a lot of ex-players who want to do the job and maybe they're the best guys. But we should be looking at some big-time labor attorneys, too.
"There are a lot of complex issues coming up in the next few years. We have to make sure we're on top of it … That's not a slap at Gene, it's just how things are going."
Those comments were made before Upshaw's passing. They have been echoed by others before and since Upshaw's death and were reiterated by former player Robert Smith last week in an interview on ESPN.
While that's logical, Dilfer's contention echoes the strong belief held by Upshaw and others that the union was best led by a former player. The belief is that football players tend to trust other players more than outsiders. That may sound emotion-based, but it rings true.
"You want to have someone who knows what you've gone through as a player and understands the real issues when it comes to injury protection and what the team might try to do to you," another player rep said. "You get some lawyer in front of you in the meetings and it's like, 'does this guy know what we go through?'
"The collective bargaining agreement is about three inches thick. Most guys don't have the time to learn that. They're having enough issues learning the playbook so that they can make the team."
Add the fact that the average NFL career is less than four years and you have a recipe for a rank-and-file that is more tuned out than tuned in on union issues.
"It was the same way on all five teams I played for," Dilfer said. "On most teams, there were maybe eight guys out of 60-something players (active, practice squad and injured reserve) who knew more than 15 percent of the CBA … The four years I was in Seattle, nobody really cared about going to the union meetings."
Moreover, Dilfer said that the player reps on many teams are often veterans who simply want to get a free trip to Hawaii every year in March for the union meetings.
"A lot of the time, it was about voting for a veteran that the guys thought deserved the free trip," Dilfer said.
But Dilfer cautioned that this time around, the issue of who is in charge is too important.
"There's a lot of stuff that's going to come up in the next few years between the owners opting out, a lockout, a strike, whatever might happen. You're going to have to have someone who can communicate with the players," Dilfer said. "And the players have to really pay attention to who they put in charge."
- Gene Upshaw