Get to Know AFL-CIO’s Affiliates: NFL Players Association
Name of Union: NFL Players Association (NFLPA)
Mission: “To pay homage to our predecessors for their courage, sacrifice and vision; [to] pledge to preserve and enhance the democratic involvement of our members; [to] confirm our willingness to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of our membership—to preserve our gains and achieve those goals not yet attained.”
Current Leadership of Union: DeMaurice Smith serves as executive director of the NFLPA. He was elected unanimously in 2009 and re-elected in 2012, 2015 and 2017. Prior to serving the NFLPA, Smith was an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and counsel to former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. Eric Winston is currently serving his third term as NFLPA president. Mark Herzlich serves as treasurer and the NFLPA has nine vice presidents: Sam Acho, Lorenzo Alexander, Zak DeOssie, Thomas Morstead, Russell Okung, Richard Sherman, Michael Thomas, Adam Vinatieri and Benjamin Watson.
Number of Members: More than 2,000.
Members Work As: Active or retired members of the National Football League (NFL).
Industries Represented: Players in the National Football League and retirees.
History: The NFLPA began in the mid-1950s, when disgruntled players asked Creighton Miller, the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, to help them form a players’ association. Miller was reluctant at first, but soon began working with key players across the league and by November, the majority of players had signed authorizations to allow the new NFLPA to represent them. They met that month and came up with a few proposals–among them: a minimum salary of $5,000, a requirement for teams to pay for players’ equipment and the continued payment of salaries for injured players.
The NFL refused to respond to the early proposals until the 1957 Supreme Court ruling in the case Radovich v. NFL, which found that the league was subject to antitrust laws. As a result, the owners quickly and quietly granted many of the NFLPA’s demands out of fear that the players would file another antitrust suit if the owners didn’t start to cooperate. Still, the owners continued to drag their feet on implementing the new proposals and player frustration grew again. Owners also ignored new proposals from the NFLPA, such as the creation of a pension plan, hospitalization and other benefits. The NFLPA threatened another antitrust suit and the owners again responded immediately, establishing hospitalization benefits, medical and life insurance and a retirement plan.
In the 1960s, labor relations between players and the NFL became strained because of the new American Football League (AFL). The owners attempted to prevent players from using the AFL as leverage by adding a clause that revoked pensions for players who went to other leagues. Another threatened lawsuit forced pension coverage to be provided to all 110 players who were in the league when benefits were introduced. When the NFL and AFL merged in 1966, the former AFL players weren’t represented by the NFLPA. The next time the NFL rejected pension demands, the players were locked out and then went on strike. That strike led to the first collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for NFL players, although the former AFL players were still not included in the agreement. The two players associations joined together in 1970 and filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to become a recognized union.
The ensuing decades saw a continuous back and forth as players looked to build more leverage in the growing sport where their play on the field drove the massive financial gains of the owners. In 1971, the NFLPA hired its first executive director and established a headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 1976, the NFLPA won a court case that eliminated the Rozelle Rule, which prevented player movement from team to team, even when contracts expired. Beginning in the late 1970s, the CBAs were often surrounded by strife, with players engaging in several strikes and owners responding in 1987 by fielding teams of replacement players while the NFLPA was on strike.
A shift occurred when Gene Upshaw was elected as the NFLPA’s executive director in 1983. The future of the organization was now driven by the players, who finally were gaining the full voice they had long asked for. Free agency was a top issue, particularly during the 1987 strike and afterward. In another antitrust suit filed in the wake of the strike, the courts ruled that if players were in a union and using their right to strike, they didn’t have the right to pursue antitrust lawsuits as individuals. In response, the NFLPA de-certified in 1989 and re-formed as a professional association. This allowed various antitrust lawsuits to go forward and, after years of conflict, a compromise settlement was finally reached in 1993. As a result, the players finally won meaningful free agency and a guaranteed percentage of gross NFL revenue.
That year, the NFLPA re-certified as a union and things were relatively calm for nearly two decades until the collective bargaining agreement expired in 2011. Once again, the NFL rejected player requests, the NFLPA de-certified and filed another antitrust lawsuit against the league. The owners proceeded to lock out the players. When the 2011 CBA was agreed upon, the re-certification of the NFLPA was a part of the agreement.
The current CBA, which expires in 2020, features a major shift toward player health and safety. The NFLPA also established the Trust as a separate organization dedicated to helping former players and the NFL created the Legacy Benefit, which will pay $620 million to former players for their contributions to the NFL.
Current Campaigns/Community Efforts: The NFLPA offers a variety of programs to help players with continuing education, personal finance, healthy lifestyles, maximizing on-field performance, career development and business opportunities. The NFLPA also sponsors programs for former players.
The NFLPA highlights the many charitable efforts by NFL players through its Community MVP season, honoring one player per week for his off-the-field outreach while donating $10,000 to his foundation or charity of choice.