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NFLPA, retired players, and NFL owners

2008 November 12
by Dennis Coates

Readers may recall postings on the Sports Economist about relations between retired NFL players and the NFL Players Association. One such posting is Compensation issues in the NFL from July 25, 2006. A new wrinkle has arisen. Retired players sued the NFLPA for failing to market them effectively. On Monday, a jury in San Francisco found for the plaintiffs and awarded 2056 retired players over $7 million in damages and another $21 million in punitive damages. More details on the story are here.

The NFLPA vows to appeal the decision, which it calls “a complete miscarriage of justice”.

The interesting part of all this to me is that the NFLPA seems to fight very hard to avoid helping out its retired dues paying members, while at the same time being considered the weakest of the professional sports labor unions in terms of fighting the owners. Bryant Gumbel’s remarks about the location of a leash is one case in point. I wonder how much of the differences between the NFLPA and the MLBPA stem from the backgrounds of the Executive Directors. This is particularly relevant now because the NFLPA is searching for a new director, and a background in football is not a requirement. Nonetheless, the main candidates seem to be retired players rather than union organizers/negotiators, as Marvin Miller who made the MLBPA so powerful and militant had been.

Post revised:11/14

I just ran across this providing more insight into the jury decision:

As fines go, nothing the NFL commissioner’s office has imposed can compare with the ruling a San Francisco jury recently slapped on the NFL Players Association for mishandling the licensing of retired NFL players’ images. (Which is a nice way of saying that late NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw asked EA Sports to “scramble” retired players’ images in its ultra-lucrative Madden Football game) The jury ordered the union to pay retired players $7.1 million in compensatory damages and $21 million in punitive damages.

“The day after [former Packers cornerback Herb] Adderley filed the class-action suit in February 2007, Upshaw said that retired players, in general, were not marketable and did not deserve any licensing money,” the New York Times’ Alan Schwarz reports. “‘We could have the greatest dog food in the world,’ he said, ‘but if the dogs don’t like it, we can’t sell it. Put that at the top of the story.’ The lead lawyer for the players, Ronald S. Katz, referred to Upshaw’s dog food remark five times in his closing argument, and later said he believed the remark played a significant role in the jury’s award.”

As the NFLPA prepares to vote on a successor to the late Mr. Upshaw, Schwarz’s fellow Timesman William C. Rhoden sees an opportunity for the NFLPA to change course. “The major challenge for the next executive director is bridging the divide between past and present players,” Rhoden writes. “This bizarre and artificial division became more pronounced about three years ago after Upshaw declared that he answered to and was responsible for only active players. [But] there is no ‘us,’ there is no ‘them’ — just a universe of football players, old and young, who have given broken bones and blood to the growth of a multibillion-dollar industry that undervalues all of them.”

Seems like the NLFPA needs to do some additional scrambling…to clean up this mess among its members.

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