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Politics as usual in search for next union chief

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

The search for the next executive director of the NFL Players Association has led two of the men leading the search into the offices of the U.S. Congress, a moment that couldn't be more symbolic.

Like most races for office, the battle for NFLPA's top job has become very political, very ugly and potentially very harmful to the hopes of avoiding labor strife in the next few years.

From accusations against staff members to accusations of a failed coup to the belief that certain agents have too much power, multiple factions have weighed in – both behind the scenes and in public – about the successor to the late Gene Upshaw, who died in August days after finding out he had pancreatic cancer.

While some of the contentiousness can be explained away by some as simple politics, the bigger issue is that whoever survives the selection process could encounter hard feelings from the other factions. Combined with the natural tendency of a new leader to have to prove himself, there is concern among many that the process could impact the upcoming negotiations with the NFL over the collective bargaining agreement.

Or as Shaun O'Hara, the New York Giants Pro Bowl center and team player representative to the NFLPA, put it this week: "This is not a good time for us to be divided."

There are five candidates for consideration by the NFLPA's executive committee: lawyer DeMaurice Smith and former NFL players Trace Armstrong, Jim Covert, Troy Vincent and Ben Utt. Next week, the 11 members of the NFLPA's executive committee will meet to narrow that list to the three candidates who will be taken to the union's March meeting in Hawaii for election. The executive director is decided by a vote of the 32 team player representatives.

The popular belief is that either Armstrong or Vincent, each of whom has served as president of the union, ultimately will be elected as executive director.

As a result, both have taken their assortment of shots from the factions supporting different candidates – shots that many people in and around the process say are detracting from the process of picking a new executive director.

"This mess has really taken away from what should be a discussion of the issues that the union faces," said former NFLPA player representative and current Vincent supporter Roman Oben, who has a bachelor's degree in economics from Louisville and a master's in public policy from Fairleigh Dickinson. "What we should be talking about is how we're going to handle the collective bargaining agreement negotiations, what we're going to do about disability and retired players, how we're going to grow the union.

"Whether it's Troy or Trace or any of the other candidates, we've gotten into tearing down their credentials rather than hearing their ideas. … What's most disturbing to me is that we've gotten to this point that we view the NFLPA almost like a business because of all the money that's involved, and really what it's supposed to be is an organization to service the needs of the players."

However, NFLPA executive committee member and Philadelphia Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins said this part of the process is not unusual and even can be helpful.

"It's just like what we saw in the presidential race, no different," Dawkins said. "You have to go through a process where you're looking at everything, including the background of the candidates. … Really, I look at it as a positive thing for the union. If this causes player reps to look into their laptops more to understand the union issues and learn about the collective bargaining agreement, that's a good thing."

Or as NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said: "The task for me and the executive committee is to make sure we bring the best possible slate of candidates to the table for the player reps to consider."

Utt and Armstrong

In the case of Utt and Armstrong, their ties to agent Tom Condon have been criticized, primarily by other agents and by retired players who view Condon's influence with Upshaw as an impediment to improving retirement and disability benefits.

As players, both Utt and Armstrong were represented by Condon. Armstrong's association continues, as he now works as an agent for Creative Artists Agency, where Condon also works. Condon represented Upshaw when he negotiated new deals with the NFLPA, and he also has served on committees within the union, such as one to determine disability for former players.

One of the main duties of the NFLPA is to oversee the conduct of agents, including Condon. Other agents have said over the years that Condon's obvious presence in and around the union constituted a conflict of interest. The belief is that Condon's ties to Upshaw put him above reproach.

While an NFLPA source said that no one in the union has advised a player to sign with Condon, the source admitted that the "perception" of a conflict on interest was possible.

"As the saying goes, perception is reality," the source said.

Among retired players, Condon is unpopular because he is perceived to be a hindrance to further benefits for them. Given the link between Condon and Armstrong, critics of Armstrong see the same recurring problems.

"If it's Armstrong, it's just going to be status quo, same old [expletive]," one source said.

But executive committee members Mike Vrabel and Mark Bruener said they didn’t see a significant issue with Condon’s previous relationship with Upshaw.

"Who are we to say who is going to represent you in negotiations?" Vrabel said, without addressing Condon specifically. "If you want the best guy to represent you and you’re not allowed to use that person, that’s not right."

Bruener says agent regulation is handled by the Committee on Agent Regulation and Discipline (CARD), a group consisting of players. He said he believes that if the agent of someone on the committee came up for discipline, he would expect that player to excuse himself from the process.

At the same time, advocates of the status quo point out that the leadership of Upshaw led to unparalleled growth by the union. Prior to Upshaw, the union was a bankrupt, dysfunctional organization. It now has more than $100 million in assets and negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with owners that gives players a higher portion of gross revenues than any other major sport.

Vincent controversy

The attacks on Vincent have been numerous. Among other things, his education, which includes credits from the University of Wisconsin, Temple, and Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J., has been questioned. Vincent finished his degree in 2007 at Edison, which is near his home.

The latest criticism of Vincent revolved around a letter from four congressmen to the union regarding the NFLPA's search process. In it, the legislators raised concerns about the integrity and transparency of the search and about its compliance with all applicable laws.

The letter, dated Jan. 8 and signed by Congressmen Gregory Meeks – who provided the letter to Yahoo! Sports – Edolphus Towns, Bobby Rush and G.K. Butterfield, shares concerns based on reports in the New York Times and Washington Post/Associated Press "regarding the Executive Director search process."

The letter asserted that Vincent initially was not part of a group of 14 finalists for the job, and New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote a column voicing his concerns about Vincent's omission from consideration.

The union wanted to know if any of the candidates for executive director had a hand in the letter. There was media speculation that Vincent had instigated the letter; two sources indicated that if any candidate was behind the letter, that candidate would be eliminated from consideration.

After the letter was sent, Rhoden wrote another column about the subject and talked to Meeks. Rhoden later told Yahoo! Sports that Meeks told him the letter was inspired by Rhoden's initial column rather than prompting from Vincent.

What ensued has been a series of events that have been curious to some and perceived as a witch hunt by supporters of Vincent.

The union felt compelled to investigate the matter. A source said that after the congressmen initially didn't respond to the union inquiries, NFLPA interim executive director Richard Berthelsen asked union human resources director Mary Moran to ask her father, Congressman Jim Moran, to find out about the letter.

In addition, NFLPA president Mawae and executive committee member Keenan McCardell went to Washington early in the week leading up to the Super Bowl to meet with Meeks and the other congressmen. According to sources, Mawae and McCardell were told by Meeks that no candidates instigated the letter but that he had spoken to Vincent after the letter had been sent.

Jim Moran eventually told the Sports Business Journal that Vincent had talked to the other four congressmen. That ruffled Meeks, who told reporters from four media outlets Monday that Vincent talked to him only after the letter had been sent. Meeks also accused Jim Moran of using his influence to protect his daughter and make sure that Vincent is not elected as executive director.

Mary Moran, who attended but never graduated from college and is certified in human-resources work, received more than $199,000 in salary and expense reimbursement from the union in 2007, according to an LM-2 filing by the union. The LM-2 lists the salaries of all union employees.

However, a union source said this week that Moran, who has a young child, had planned to leave the union shortly after Upshaw's successor was named.

Supporters of Vincent say the controversy over the letter appears to be a way of trying to eliminate him from consideration. It follows repeated reports by the Sports Business Journal of concerns within the union that if Vincent were elected, he would fire numerous union employees while others loyal to Upshaw would quit.

Those sources also say people in the union not supporting Vincent have called media outlets to "dirty up" Vincent, and that people in the union who were perceived to be close to Vincent have had their jobs threatened.

Resignations seem unlikely, particularly in the current economic climate. Moreover, it's unlikely that the union's executive committee would allow Vincent to make significant firings as the union heads into labor talks with the league.

Specifically, executive committee members such as Mawae, Dawkins, Mike Vrabel and Mark Bruener said that both Berthelsen and outside attorney Jeff Kessler, who has been part of the NFLPA's negotiating team for two decades, are highly respected.

"I would have a hard time seeing us go into a negotiation with the owners without those two," Dawkins said. Vrabel has referred to Berthelsen as a "silent soldier" who is "highly respected." After Upshaw's death, Berthelsen was the unanimous choice of the executive committee to serve as interim executive director.

After Upshaw

There have been reports that Vincent tried to lead a "coup" against Upshaw at the March 2008 NFLPA meeting. However, O'Hara, Oben and Ravens player representative Matt Stover denied that. Instead, all of them claim that several players – including Stover and Vrabel – pointedly asked the then-62-year-old Upshaw for a succession plan.

The request for a succession plan was reiterated in an April 3, 2008, conference call, and Stover outlined a succession process in an email to other player representatives a few days afterward. That rankled Upshaw, who accused Stover, a 16-year NFLPA player rep, of having "no clue."

"I was on the April 3 conference call, and I can tell you, point blank, there was no coup," Oben said.

Said O'Hara: "To my knowledge, there was no coup to overthrow Gene Upshaw. But it's funny how when one set of people talk about it, it was a coup, and others talk about a succession plan. When you look at it, a succession plan is necessary, and there was talk about a succession plan. … Obviously, what transpired [Upshaw's death], nobody saw that coming. I think players were starting to look ahead, and that we're not waiting to the last hour.

"It's interesting because I know there was some conversation and guys said, 'Look Gene, we deal with this as players all the time. I understand you may not be comfortable with the fact that we're talking about life after Gene with the [NFLPA], but we deal with it every day in our job because they draft a player at our position and we have to deal with it.' Every team worries about: 'Who's going to fill this player's position; who's the next player?' "

Sadly, the union has been forced to deal with succession earlier than expected, and at a critical juncture. League owners last May opted out of the current CBA early, meaning it will expire following the 2010 season rather than 2012. And with CBA talks expected to heat up as soon as a new executive director is named, there is a fear by some that the new executive director may feel undue pressure to "win" a negotiation against the owners.

"Whenever there's a change in leadership in an organization, that's automatically going to be a consideration for the new leader," a league source said. "Does he measure up? How is he perceived by his membership?"

An NFL management source also expressed concern about the process and a possible division in the ranks. The source said that the ability of the new executive director to bring the players together in order to reach an agreement in collective bargaining is critical.

"That's the one thing that [Upshaw] really had – the ability to bring his side to the table and know that he had the players on his side," the source said.

Not having that ability can hold up talks or lead to further problems. The source pointed to former NFLPA assistant executive director Doug Allen, who left the union in 2006 to head the Screen Actors Guild. Allen was fired by SAG in late January, after two years on the job, when he couldn't reach an agreement with producers on a new contract following seven months of negotiation.

"You have to know your constituency and be able to rally them at the right time," the source said. "Gene always knew the proper time to move on these issues."

For his part, O'Hara hopes that whoever becomes the next executive director will prioritize the big picture and won't be overwhelmed by the pressure of having to win.

"The way I look at it is that you win and lose football games because there's an actual scoreboard," O'Hara said. "I don't look at these negotiations as this side won and this side lost because the bottom line is that we're both making money. Nobody is losing in this situation. … I look at it that there's one way to win in this, and that's to prevent a work stoppage. If there's a work stoppage, then we all lose."

And like Dawkins, O'Hara believes the process ultimately will lead to a more educated and concerned group of players, a factor that only can help the union.

"It has allowed the player reps and the executive committee to really take ownership of this process. In the past, I think the guys really relied on Gene to run it, to use Gene as a crutch, that Gene would take care of it," O'Hara said. "Now, with Gene gone, I think players are taking ownership, and that's what's needed.

"I'm really excited to see players take ownership of it and to get involved," O'Hara added. "I've heard guys talk about the union and the collective bargaining agreement more in the past year than they ever have before – and that's good."

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