Attorney Cyrus Mehri, who played a key role in the NFL’s adoption of its minority interviewing rule for coaches and key front office positions, said Tuesday that he intends to run next year for executive director of the NFL Players Association.
Mehri will challenge DeMaurice Smith, who is up for reelection in March 2018. Smith was elected in 2009 and was reelected in 2012 and 2015.
The challenge to Smith’s leadership of the NFLPA will come at a key time. The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players’ union runs through 2020. The executive director elected by the NFLPA next year, presumably to the standard three-year term, will lead the players through the upcoming set of negotiations with the owners and the league.
Mehri confirmed his intentions in a telephone interview Tuesday evening after announcing his bid in an interview with HBO that aired Tuesday night.
“I very humbly came to this decision because I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t come forward,” Mehri said in a phone interview. “A lot of Hall of Famers see a train wreck coming. The management side and the players’ side don’t get along, and it’s become about being overly litigious, losing in court.”
Mehri is a prominent civil rights attorney who is a founding partner of the D.C. firm Mehri & Skalet. He also serves as counsel of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the diversity group that works closely with the NFL on its minority hiring process.
In 2002, Mehri and the late Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. released a report critical of the hiring opportunities given to minority coaches in the NFL. The NFL, under the threat of litigation, enacted what became known as the Rooney Rule, requiring each team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. The rule was named for late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the former chairman of NFL’s workplace diversity committee.
The rule later was extended to include openings for key front office positions such as general manager. The NFL most recently agreed to apply the rule informally, without penalties for violations, to assistant-coaching vacancies for coordinator jobs.
It is not unusual for Smith, a Washington attorney who succeeded Richard Berthelsen as the union’s leader after Berthelsen served as interim executive director following the death of Gene Upshaw, to face opposition. When the players reelected Smith in 2015, he faced eight challengers: former NFL players Sean Gilbert, Robert Griffith, Jason Belser and John Stufflebeem; attorneys Andrew Smith, James Acho and Arthur McAfee; and sports and entertainment agent Rob London.
Tensions have been high between NFL and players’ union. Smith told the MMQB he believes it is likely there will be another work stoppage, either a strike by the players or a lockout by the owners, in 2021. The owners locked out the players before the two sides reached an agreement on a 10-year labor deal in 2011.
Smith accused NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in an HBO interview of lying by saying that the players’ union would have input into the revised personal conduct policy enacted by the league and the owners in December 2014. Eric Winston, the veteran offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals who serves as president of the NFLPA, told a Cincinnati radio station that players shouldn’t care if another work stoppage eventually “might kill the golden goose” because they won’t still be playing by then.
The Smith-led NFLPA has clashed with the league repeatedly while contesting disciplinary measures taken by the NFL against Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson and Tom Brady. The two sides have traded public taunts recently over the union’s pending appeal of the six-game suspension under the personal conduct penalty given by Goodell to Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. The system of player discipline and Goodell’s role in it could be a significant issue in the next set of labor negotiations.
The length and structure of the season also could be addressed in those negotiations, with Goodell again talking about shortening the preseason. The owners previously sought to lengthen the regular season in conjunction with a reduction of the preseason. When the union rejected that proposal, the owners contemplated expanding the playoffs. It is not known what, if anything, the owners might seek in the upcoming set of negotiations in exchange for a possible shortening of the preseason.
The NFL has offered to conduct mutual research with the union into the potential use of marijuana as a pain-management tool for players, creating the possibility that changes to the sport’s marijuana policy also could be enacted as part of the next CBA negotiations.
Goodell and the owners are applying the finishing touches to a five-year contract extension that would keep Goodell in place as NFL commissioner through 2024, according to a person familiar with those deliberations. Goodell succeeded Paul Tagliabue as commissioner in 2006.
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