Domonique Foxworth on an athlete’s role in leading his sport from within

(Courtesy Domonique Foxworth and NFLPA)
(Kevin A. Koski / NFLPA)

Former NFLPA President Domonique Foxworth, who played in the NFL for seven seasons and served on the union’s executive committee for eight years, was a candidate for the NBPA executive director position to which Washington, D.C., lawyer Michele Roberts was recently elected. Before closing the book on that process, Foxworth, who will graduate from the Harvard School of Business next May, wrote about his views on how athletes can best lead their unions for The Early Lead.

There’s a W.E.B. Dubois quote that I’ve had scribbled on a Post-it note in my office for years. It served as my mantra when negotiations became tedious or engagement was low, “Our unrealized strength is so enormous that the world wonders at our stupid apathy.”

Having been a long-time leader in the NFLPA and involved in this extended NBPA search process, I understand well the potential opportunities and pitfalls inherent in running a professional sports union. And I know how important it is to have the right leaders guiding the organization.

The NBA players made a smart choice in selecting Michele Roberts to help lead the union. She’s talented, and tenacious–a true trailblazer, and I fully expect her to have a long and successful tenure. Her career as one of the top trial lawyers in the country likely presented more of an intellectual challenge than she will face day-to-day as the new NBPA executive director. Frankly, the business of sports is not that complicated. And, while having extensive sports experience or being a former player may be preferred by some, I have never thought that it should be a prerequisite and I commend the NBA players for recognizing that.

I know it will be tempting for Roberts and the NBPA executive committee to getstarted by immediately concentrating on the on the work: the negotiations, the bargaining, the CBA. I recommend differently.

The single most important job for the union staff and leadership is to communicate directly and frequently with the members. From my experience, most players will not seek out information; they will believe what they hear or read in the locker room, from reporters and through social media. That causes problems. So, union leaders need to make sure that the information players hear, comes directly from THEM.

The most significant lesson I learned as a member of the Executive Committee, and later, as President of the NFLPA, was that the negotiation strategies, and legal tactics, no matter how brilliant, have a marginal impact on outcomes, at best. The wit, skill and strategies were not the source of the union’s power. Our leadership team devoted countless hours to constructing the most innovative, clever, and calculated plans to put us in a position of strength during collective bargaining. But the truth is, the power of a union–or any group, for that matter–comes from the cohesion of its members, not the intellect of the group’s leadership.

I cannot emphasize this point enough: The relationship the union’s staff and leaders have with the players is paramount. The members’ trust in the leadership is the only thing that will move them from apathy to action.

The skills needed to lead a sports union today are much more like those of a politician than a CEO: charisma, vision, and empathy will get you much further than execution and precision. Each player is a different jury and you have to find the best way to get through to him.

Team owners, led by Adam Silver, have cleverly positioned themselves as partners, when, in fact, the relationship is symbiotic at best. This was abundantly clear during the Donald Sterling debacle.

When the owners present a lopsided deal that is meant to divide the union–-and they will–-the players need to remain united and be clear on their adversary. If they already trust the union leadership, and recognize the value and leverage in their own solidarity, then the job will be much easier. Attempts to create competing factions among the members by management will be unsuccessful.

We won’t have to wonder about apathy among the players—-the union will have one voice and no dissenters. And then the strength that Dubois reference will be realized.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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Cindy Boren · August 5

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