NFLPA executive director’s future in doubt as players work to repair image after 10-year agreement

DeMaurice Smith the Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association speaks during the NFLPA press conference on January 30, 2020 at the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beack, FL.

Rich Graessle | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

One week after agreeing to a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement with team owners, the National Football League Players Association is starting the process of repair its union. And the rebuild could include the search for a new executive director, according NFLPA executive committee member Lorenzo Alexander.

In an interview with CNBC, Alexander, who also serves as a vice-president, said he couldn’t “guarantee” DeMaurice Smith would stay on as executive director, while also acknowledging the players union needs to be unified when negotiating the next CBA after internal tension became public and the agreement passed by a narrow margin, which signaled wide disagreement among players.

Last week, NFLPA members approved terms of a new CBA  which includes a 17th regular-season game, by a narrow vote of 1,019 to 959. The results weren’t too surprising as some players expressed early disappointment the deal didn’t offer more for additional games.

“I definitely see there being change based on how contentious this last vote was,” Alexander said.

Before votes were tallied, Alexander, the former Buffalo Bills linebacker and two-time Pro Bowler, admitted internal discussions about this CBA was intense. Top NFL stars like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson rejected the deal publicly. And Wilson’s teammate, Bobby Wagner, told CNBC players’ safety concerns were being ignored.

To add the problems, Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Russell Okung filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against Smith claiming Smith had no authority to negotiate terms with NFL owners. 

 

Donald S. Prophete is a labor lawyer and partner at Kansas City-based Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete. He said Smith did a “good job” negotiating the new contract as more reveune was shared throughout classes of players. But he added the disagreements over the CBA signaled problems for Smith that could “push him out.”

Prophete said the NFLPA’s issue isn’t Smith, but lack of unity within the NFLPA.

“They always fold,” Prophete said. “They always have these issues and it seems like these issues are being more entrenched now that there is more money in the game. Instead of relieving some of the pressure, it seems like the pressure is increasing because there is more money and the guys at the top want more money.”

Smith is up for an extension in 2021 and will need a unanimous vote from the Selection Committee to avoid possible opposition. The board, made up of player reps from each team, will determine if Smith’s job will should be open.

Alexander said he expects “emotions” from these CBA talks will carry over when deciding Smith’s future. And with new members recently added to the executive committee, including Cleveland Browns lineman J.C. Tretter as union president, he said a change is possible. 

“I can say based on what happened over this last year, or so, it probably will be opened up to the board, and they’ll have the opportunity to decide on what happens next,” Alexander said. 

The executive director’s title is under the command of the executive committee. Smith declined comment through an NFLPA spokesperson. He did tweet a statement to explain his stance on negotiating the CBA before the vote was official.  

Future business

Alexander said it was “essential” the CBA included pay raises, that would impact minimum salaries and increase benefits for retired players. The new CBA will increase the share players receive share to 48.5% once the 17th game is included.

Alexander called it playing “the long game” to get to a more even split. “I think guys have to understand, if the owners had their ultimate way, we would be walking significantly backward,” he said.

Alexander said positioning the NFLPA for the next round of talks is the current goal.

With league minimums increasing, players entering the NFL next season with no experience will make at least $600,000. That number can increase by up to $105,000 in 2021, and then see $45,000 raises per season throughout the deal. 

“That is a significant amount of resource on the front end of your career,” Alexander said. “We have to continue to work and close that gap of the guys that wouldn’t be able to sustain a lockout financially.”

Expect the union to request a 50-50 revenue split the next round of talks. And Alexander said it could take a work stoppage before owners budge. Perhaps another attempt at pushing for an 18th regular-season game will be in the plans, too.

But with current labor peace set for the remainder of the decade, Alexander said the NFLPA has started plans for the future. 

After 14 years playing in the NFL, Alexander retired after the 2019 season and will not be eligible to sit on the committee following the next round of elections in three years, so Alexander wants to set the tone before his terms ends.

The NFLPA’s first task is uniting a divided membership. Then, players will need to work with Smith to determine his future as executive director. But despite any changes, Alexander said the union can’t lose sight of what was achieved last Sunday. 

“Where do we want to be in 10 years when this deal is back up?” Alexander asked. “The further you get away from this, you start removing guys that were unhappy with the deal out of the league. In some areas, we moved closer to our desires. Now that this deal is ratified, we can start [contemplating the next CBA].”

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