NFL Union Meets Under Gathering Clouds

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

In past annual meetings of the NFL Players Association, the results often were a foregone conclusion. Labor grievances were minimal and Gene Upshaw would be reelected as the executive director whenever his term was expiring.

But after Upshaw's death last August, the tenor is far different as players and union officials gather in Hawaii for this year's meetings. The union representatives for the 32 teams are scheduled to vote Sunday to elect Upshaw's successor, who will have to lead the players amid a global economic crisis and with a possible labor confrontation with the NFL's franchise owners looming.

"This is the future of the NFL and the future of the players," former Washington Redskins defensive end Charles Mann said. "This is a big deal. I really care about this. I'm looking at this, hoping the right decision is made."

The four finalists for the job are former players Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong and attorneys DeMaurice F. Smith and David Cornwell. Vincent and Armstrong are former union presidents. Smith is a D.C.-based partner at the law firm Patton Boggs with no substantial ties to the NFL. Cornwell has an extensive history representing NFL players.

"Whoever is chosen, the players are going to have to rally around that person," Houston Texans tight end Mark Bruener, a member of the players' ruling 10-member executive committee, said yesterday. "We do have to unify quickly behind the new executive director. The owners aren't going to sit around and wait for us."

The owners voted last year to exercise a reopener clause in their collective bargaining agreement with the players, ending the deal two years early. That move made the 2010 season the final season under the agreement, and the 2009 season the final one in it with a salary cap.

So the clock will be ticking when the new executive director is elected by a majority vote of the player reps -- Upshaw often said that if the salary cap ever went away, the players never would allow it to return -- and this round of collective bargaining imperils the sport's longstanding labor peace.

Upshaw predicted that the owners would consider a lockout of the players in 2011 and many owners have said they regard the last labor deal, negotiated by Upshaw and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2006, as overly favorable to the players. But Upshaw and union general counsel Richard Berthelsen, who has served as acting executive director since Upshaw's death, have said the players won't agree to financial givebacks.

Some on the players' side now say they think that the owners sensed weakness and division among the players when the reopener vote was taken last year. And the owners' suspicions probably have been reinforced, those people say, by the apparent divisiveness of the union's search.

Upshaw died only days after having pancreatic cancer diagnosed, and he had only begun to implement a process for his successor to be chosen. He resisted efforts to have that successor picked while he remained in office. Vincent once was viewed as Upshaw's likely successor, given his credentials as the union's president while he was an active player and as a union executive afterward.

But Upshaw and Vincent had a bitter falling-out before Upshaw's death, associates say, and Vincent's candidacy has been plagued by accusations and published reports of alleged misdeeds. He was accused of prompting scrutiny by several members of Congress of the union's search process, and later of improperly disclosing personal information about agents to a friend and business partner. The union announced that it would investigate the allegations about Vincent's disclosure of confidential information about agents.

Upshaw reportedly had gathered e-mails as evidence of Vincent's improper disclosure about the agents, and Upshaw's widow, Terri, told Sports Illustrated she questions whether Vincent is the "right candidate" for the job. Vincent has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, and he and his supporters have suggested that some Upshaw loyalists have attempted to undermine his candidacy.

In a phone interview yesterday just before traveling to Maui, Bruener declined to answer a question about his views on the identities of the sources of the allegations against Vincent.

But Bruener also said: "It's been real disappointing that it hasn't been more professional. There have been so many reports based on nonfactual information. I've been real disappointed about the number of character assassinations against one candidate, Troy Vincent. The executive committee has tried very hard to run a fair process. I'm real disappointed the requests of the executive committee have not been met."

Bruener said he doesn't think the allegations have damaged Vincent's candidacy.

"The accusations have become so outlandish, I think that every time there's a new report it actually strengthens that candidate," Bruener said.

Some Vincent supporters say they believe he has more than enough votes lined up to be elected Sunday. But others aren't so sure that the election is sewn up. Mann, a strong supporter of Smith, said during an interview last week that he thinks Vincent "disqualifies himself with all the stuff he brings in. I don't know that you want someone who brings baggage in."

Mann said he also has concerns that Armstrong's work in recent years for the same firm as agent Tom Condon could represent at least the appearance of a conflict of interest because the union regulates agents. Condon formerly represented Upshaw.

Armstrong, who remained close to Upshaw until Upshaw's death, said this week that he didn't think the issues should be discussed publicly by the candidates.

"I've said from the start of this that I wanted to be respectful of the process and I didn't want to do anything to hurt the organization," Armstrong said, "and I'm going to continue that through the completion of the process."

The four candidates are scheduled to make formal presentations to the players this weekend, then are to speak to smaller groups of players before Sunday's scheduled vote. The new executive director is to get right to work, with one source saying the union's meeting has been extended until midday Wednesday.

Upshaw's successor will have the task of attempting to repair the union's uneasy relationship with retired players, and will have to face a variety of issues such as recent calls for a more restrictive rookie wage scale, the league's desire to lengthen the regular season to 17 or 18 games, and the union's push for a system of appeals to an outside arbitrator of any discipline imposed on players by the commissioner.

The first task, though, will be trying to reunite the players and steel them for the labor negotiating tasks that are soon at hand.

"Of course, this is a challenge," Cornwell said by phone this week. "But based on the process I went through, I am optimistic that all NFL players as a group will get behind whoever is elected executive director.

"The players will show the unity that is necessary not only to get the best deal possible from the owners, but also to have the internal discussions and deliberations to make some very creative proposals during the negotiations. I am very optimistic there will be unity coming out of the process."

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