Now, 40 years after he started, Berthelsen, 67, is retiring from the players union, a move that marks the end of a historic run that gave him a front-row seat as football exploded from a Sunday pastime to the nation’s most popular sport. He was never the public face — he’d never want that — but he pulled levers and pushed buttons behind the scenes of labor battles big and small.
“It seems like randomly things pop back into my mind, things I’d forgotten about, old stories,” Berthelsen said one recent afternoon in his office. “It’s been a tremendous ride.”
Today the NFLPA has more than 100 full-time employees and takes up four full floors of office space on 20th Street NW. “We have entire departments in this building devoted to what used to be a small part of my job description back then,” Berthelsen said. Group licensing, for example, has three dozen dedicated employees. Berthelsen used to do it alone.
Finding precedents was always easy for Berthelesen because he played an integral part in all the landmark cases that involved the union. People from both sides of the negotiating table said Berthelsen was equally adept at debating and bargaining on divisive issues.
“You might disagree with him and you might be extremely frustrated by that disagreement, but he was always civil,” said former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. “He was never the type to alienate people. Dick was very articulate, but he could be unyielding until he got a chance to get together with Gene [Upshaw, the longtime executive director of the NFLPA] and identify what a good compromise might be.”
The NFL Players Association technically started in 1956, but four decades ago, John Mackey, the Baltimore Colts’ great, and the players were looking to build it into something more formidable. They hired Ed Garvey, a lawyer from Wisconsin, who quickly realized the task in front of him was bigger than one person could handle. Former Redskin Pat Richter urged Garvey to hire a general counsel, and they soon settled on Berthelsen.
“And he lasted all those years,” Richter said. “That just doesn’t happen in a political environment like professional sports is today. That, to me, says more about what he’s done and what he’s meant than anything.”
Today, players and owners share a $9 billion pie, which no one would have imagined in 1972. There was no free agency then, player safety wasn’t a discussion topic and communication between union members was lacking.
“We were creating something out of nothing,” said Garvey. “It was a paradise for a bright lawyer with a curiosity like Richard.”