NFL Players Prepared for Change in a Rapidly Evolving Business

Today’s guest columnist is Lloyd W. Howell Jr., executive director of the NFL Players Association.

When the NFLPA Board of Player Representatives elected me in late June, it may have come as a surprise to, well, everyone in the NFL world, but not to me or our player leadership. I presented a fresh approach for the future of the NFL Players Association to take advantage of the rapid changes in our business.

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For example, we are in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl, and legalized gambling has well and truly arrived in sports, but there are other dynamics in the business that players and our union need to be thinking about. Players come into the NFL with a greater understanding of their value and have started talking about things like equity. Even though NFL games continued to dominate broadcast viewership this past year, nobody really knows how media rights are going to change in the next three to five years.

We identified these challenges in the search process and started to talk about how our union and our membership could both prepare for them and take advantage of them, well in advance of the expiration of our current collective bargaining agreement, if those changes make sense and are in the interest of our players. The reality is that change management is part of every business, and if our union stays static in a dynamic environment, we will miss opportunities. Every contract and every agreement should serve as a guidepost for how we operate, rather than an excuse for inertia and opportunities missed.

I am not suggesting that we scrap our collective bargaining agreement, but nearly four years after that agreement was signed, any smart business partners would be wise to look for improvements. It should not be lost on anyone that players and owners were forced to essentially renegotiate the 2020 CBA because of the pandemic. While, thankfully, we do not have that as a factor, the principles of improvement, growth and adaptation must be part of our ethos.

The only way to get the answers is to ask questions, and during the first months of my tenure, I have been asking a lot of them. Yes, every business and organization must adapt and evolve, but any leader who is quick to make sweeping changes or announce new initiatives without a deep understanding of the business—and in our union’s case, our membership—would be creating motion without progress.

I pledged to our player leadership team that progress would come and come quickly, but only after I fulfilled my commitment to reach out and listen to as many key stakeholders as possible. We have not been static and have certainly addressed things with the NFL that our membership cares about—we secured full Total and Permanent Disability benefits for hundreds of our former players and adjusted the penalties for gambling, as examples—but we also have been working hard to sharpen our focus to identify what can truly be possible in our future.

To understand this, I had to get to know our players. Between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, I met with nearly every NFL player and—quickly—common topics and themes began to emerge. Yes, the expected workplace issues like health and safety, field surfaces, penalties and fines and drug testing were raised, but our players were asking a lot of questions that began with “how” and “why.” How can we improve on our economic system? Why is there no equity structure for the most important and valuable group of employees, namely the players? Why are employees not at the table in a meaningful way when decisions are made about changes to the game’s rules? Why are NFL clubs resistant to common-sense changes like moving away from synthetic surfaces to consistent, high-quality grass?

There are certain liberties one can take as the “new guy,” and during my listening tour I also asked our players, and all our stakeholders, a lot of questions. I met with our former players, business partners, started conversations with agents, and the NFL and NFL owners as well. How can our union better inform you about our programs and services? What do you want to see out of the next CBA? What pain points do you experience at your workplace that we need to address?

I also met with several NFL owners and asked them the same aspirational questions. Ultimately, despite the fact that labor and management can—and should—have a natural friction, what everyone wants to see is a good business partnership that generates revenue for everyone, but also makes the game better for our players and our fans.

Taking on this new and unexpected challenge is about making a difference, and I was attracted to the mission of this union. Players have a clear understanding of the issues they want addressed and the ever-changing landscape of our business. It is our responsibility as a union to change and evolve as well, so we can continue fulfilling our mission of protecting our gains and achieving those gains not yet attained, for players past, present and future.

Lloyd Howell was elected as the fourth executive director of the NFL Players Association in June 2023. Prior to this, Howell spent more than 34 years at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., where he held a variety of leadership roles, most recently as its chief financial officer and treasurer. He serves on the boards of Moody’s Corporation and General Electric Healthcare and is a trustee at the University of Pennsylvania. He has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Penn and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

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