The NFLPA’s Big Decision

This weekend, the NFL Players’ Association will vote on a new executive director. Former players Trace Armstrong and Troy Vincent are vying for the job, as are attorneys David Cornwell and DeMaurice Smith. Needless to say, it’s a critical decision. In recent years, the NFLPA has been plagued by scandal and infighting, and most of it traced back to the late union head Gene Upshaw, whose legacy and influence still loom large.

Bryant Gumbel was indelicate when he likened Upshaw to the commissioner’s house pet, but he hit on an undeniable truth: the NFLPA is weak, gallingly weak by the standards set by the NBA and MLB unions. It’s a violent, dangerous sport that’s wildly profitable, yet NFL players play under a salary cap and don’t enjoy guaranteed contracts. That’s to say nothing of the shameful neglect of the league’s many disabled retirees. But taking on the owners and changing the labor structure will require a union leader of uncommon vision and savvy. And that brings us to the upcoming vote.

Armstrong appears to be the favorite. As Upshaw was, he’s an accomplished, intelligent man with experience as a player and as an executive. The same goes for Vincent. But Armstrong and Vincent have no union experience outside of football, and hiring a former player to lead the charge into the board room strikes me as, well, like positing that Henry Ford’s great-grandson just happens to be the best guy in the world to run Ford Motor Company. It’s just a bit too tidy and insular to be the proper decision, especially given what’s ahead.

The owners will opt out of the current collective-bargaining agreement following the 2010 season–the first season in the free-agent era not played under a salary cap. The players should be ready to go to war. But will they have the necessary resolve under a leader from the Upshaw mold–a leader who values accommodation and “peace for our time” over the players’ interests? It’s doubtful. But the players seem to be inclined to go in that direction. They want a guy who’s worn a jock and been in a locker room. Those are understandable instints, but CBAs are hammered out across conference tables, not trainer’s tables. Marvin Miller, the man who took the MLB union to unimaginable heights, never spent any time in a clubhouse before taking over. If the NFL player reps don’t go with Cornwell or Smith, both highly placed attorneys with resumes that dwarf those of Armstrong and Vincent, then you can expect the status quo to prevail. And that’s just how the NFL’s owners would have it.

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