This Sunday, the National Football League Players Association will hold an election for Executive Director, a position held by DeMaurice Smith since being unanimously elected by active player reps in 2009. Including Smith, there are nine candidates for the position, which is about eight more than usual. Most of these candidates are rather... aspirational.
There are any number of reasons that this year's class is so large: the union's deliberately combative relationship with Roger Goodell has begun to wear on many players; as revenue and profits for the league have soared, player salary has mostly remained stagnant; many players continue to be displeased with steps the league has taken toward player health and safety and post-career benefits; Goodell's continued and largely unchecked super-judiciary power creep. But mostly, this is happening because the total tonnage of these complaints has made the leadership of an already weak union look downright vulnerable, and the barrier to entry appears comically if temporarily low.
Here's a quick look at the most interesting bits of a most interesting class of NFLPA Executive Director hopefuls.
Belser has been involved with the union for 10 years, and is the current senior director of player services. He played in the the NFL for 11 years, mostly at safety for the Colts, and is seen as one of the major threats to unseat Smith. He was also originally left off the ballot for reasons that haven't quite been explained, and was added on after the deadline, for reasons that haven't quite been explained. The likely explanation, though, is that, while it's exceedingly easy to be nominated for the election, as should become obvious shortly, Besler only got around to filing his paperwork at the very last minute. Why? Because his candidacy is essentially a surprise swiftboating of Smith, whom he has apparently been undermining for months. Belser is considered one of the key challengers to Smith.
Gilbert is a former defensive lineman who played 11 seasons. He's essentially running as Not De Smith, and has passed around a spreadsheet detailing the damage done by Smith accepting 47 percent of total net revenue instead of the 59 percent the players received under the old collective bargaining agreement. A drop of 12 percentage points (about a 20 percent decrease) is substantial. Gilbert says that could be worth up to $10 billion:
In the NFL, player compensation is limited by the cap, the size of which is pegged to league revenue: as the latter rises, so does the former. Between 2009—the last year of the previous CBA—and now, inflation-adjusted NFL revenues have grown a healthy 31 percent. Over the same time period, the salary cap has jumped from $128 million to a projected $143 million—an inflation-adjusted gain of 0.38 percent.
That's pretty bad! To reclaim some of the ground ceded by Smith, Gilbert has some ideas. First, he thinks the union should threaten the league with claims of collusion, which doesn't seem like such a bad idea, as collusion is rampant and obvious in many corners of the league, from restricted free agency to reprimanding Dallas and Washington for not colluding to depress player pay in the uncapped season. Second, he thinks the current players should strongly consider a move to 18 games in the regular season, which players have been uniformly against, to improve both profits and league office relations.
In 2012, Gilbert won a workman's compensation lawsuit alleging that he had incurred 100 percent permanent disability (meaning, he was rendered permanently and completely unable to work, and if he were to take a job, would presumably be under suspicion of fraud) "as a result of a cumulative trauma injury to various parts of his body" while playing football. The full weight of his award fell to the Raiders, because the last year he was exposed to this physical harm was in Oakland, where he played six games in 2003, after playing eight and nine games in the previous two seasons. Gilbert's body—he is a mountain of a man and was the third overall pick in the 1992 draft—remained healthy enough to play a full 16 games in just five of his 11 seasons.
His debut album, Grown & Sexy (2010), is available on Amazon and features seven songs, including "Your My Boo" and "Crazy Love;o)."
Griffith is another former player, playing 13 years at safety, mostly with the Vikings. He was the Vikings player rep, served seven years on the NFLPA's executive committee, and has been involved in the push to educate players and fans about the effects of brain injury. He is one of the more vanilla candidates, qualified mainly on the strength of having been a player, rather than any labor law and negotiation experience. His biggest appeal is, according to him, his understanding of the full arc of a player's career, from entering the league as a rookie through to retirement and the need for continued benefits after leaving the league. Like many old union heads, he is a supporter of the more convivial method of league relations in place during the tenure of Gene Upshaw, who once said, "The bottom line is I don't work for [retired players]. They don't hire me and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary. They (retirees) say they don't have anybody in the (bargaining) room. Well, they don't and they never will. I'm the only one in that room. They're not in the bargaining unit. They don't even have a vote."
A few facts about Robert London, who is apparently a sports agent of some renown: He is a former Vice President of Dow Lohnes Sports and Entertainment, LLC. He was considered for the Raiders GM job in 2011. According to Pro Football Talk, he "doesn't appear to be an NFLPA-certified contract advisor." He was briefly linked with a potential role at Roc Nation Sports in 2013. His most recent appearance in the news was issuing an exclusive press release to FoxSports.com after his then-client Adam Muema famously left the NFL combine because God told him to do so. The exclusive, newsworthy press release from the NFL Superagent read, in part, "It is with deep regret that I have decided I can no longer serve as a marketing advisor for NFL prospect and former San Diego State running back Adam Muema. When Adam initially hired me as one of his advisors I had great hope that he would indeed put forth the necessary work and dedication from a comprehensive point of view that it takes to become a successful NFL prospect.
"The pre-draft process calls for every individual player to sharpen both their minds as well as their bodies during this arduous period. While Adam had indeed succeeded in building his physique, I cannot with confidence say the same regarding his mental preparation for this endeavor."
Acho is one of three attorneys up for the job. According to his strangely extant Wikipedia page (it's unclear who, possibly, might have a motive to write the page, since autobiography is largely disallowed, meaning James Acho and his close associates, surely, would not have written it, re-submitted it after deletion for non-notability, and added references to James Acho to other articles, like a James Acho book reference in the American Football League page), he is frequently referenced by Randy and Jason Sklar when they occasionally guest host The Jim Rome Show, and was referenced by Howie Schwab on Stump the Schwab, a since-cancelled ESPN program about colossally obscure sports statistics and persons. We have no reason to believe these claims are untrue.
Acho, who says his practice dedicates about 20 percent of its time to sports law, now represents a number of former NFL players and other athletes individually, most of whom played for local Detroit teams. His highest achievement appears to be his involvement in a 2003 class action lawsuit involving about 1100 former Major League Baseball players who were active from 1947 through 1980, the year a new CBA went into place that awarded players benefits and pensions, but froze out former players and changed the requirements for receiving these benefits. It was a right-headed, admirable case to take up. The case began in a Los Angeles trial court, where the judge agreed the players were in the moral right, but that the statute of limitations had obviously passed long ago, and dismissed the case. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the appeal. Some years later, in 2011, by which time the class of players numbered just 800 after many members had passed away, MLB agreed to pay the survivors up to $10,000 in "charitable donations." To our knowledge, the union has not tried simply asking the NFL for money as charity.
Acho does not appear believe that there is very much wrong with current labor relations in the NFL. "Quite frankly," he said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, "I think there's only one area that's been neglected and that is long-term health care for players." His top priority would be to ensure players have medical coverage until age 65.
Acho also does not appear to be attending the vote in Hawaii.
Art McAfee has worked with the NCAA as an enforcement representative, conducted independent investigations at Miami and Alabama in the 90s, spent a few years working as an NFL agent, spent 17 years as Staff Counsel for the NFLPA—where he helped negotiate the universally panned 2011 CBA—and currently heads the McAfee Group, which is a "marketing, consulting, and legal affairs company." I wasn't really able to find anything stupid or embarrassing about him.
Andrew Smith, Esquire (his word and he's welcome to it), has set up a single-purpose website to educate the public, and presumably the 32 player reps, about why he should be the next executive director of the NFLPA. In the landing page's main the section, titled "Why Andrew Smith Should Be The Next Executive Director of the NFLPA," Smith makes several claims about his candidacy. Many of these are not outwardly substantive reasons a player representative might entrust the labor negotiations in a multi-billion-dollar industry with sweeping medical, institutional, and super-judiciary concerns to a lawyer who: "for more than eight (8) years [has] been protecting the legal rights of active and retired NFL players in matters ranging from financial losses, contract issues, insurance claims, criminal matters, real estate issues, business ventures, trademarks, endorsements, prep-nuptials, paternity and matrimonial issues."
One, however, is:
8. Smith has made case law in significant national employment and labor cases.
Presumably, this refers to the similar claim made on the site's "About" page, which elaborates:
Smith has set national precedent in employment law Fakete v. Aetna; in a wrongful death case Lamont v. New Jersey State Police; and in a collective bargaining case Wilson v. United States Marshal Service.
Smith lost two of these three cases; that is how he "set national precedent."
John Stufflebeem is a former Vice Admiral and director of Navy staff. His wartime credentials are considerable: He was a fighter pilot in multiple global conflicts, involved in Manuel Noriega's capture, worked with the White House during Desert Storm, and commanded the 6th Fleet from 2005 to 2007. He was also a punter with the Naval Academy under then-coach Steve Belichick, and eventually punted in pre-season for the Detroit Lions, where he met special teams coach Bill Belichick.
Stufflebeem is one of the dove candidates, saying the league and players need to repair their relationship, and should build on the positives of the current CBA, such as they are, instead of tearing it up and starting fresh. Improving these relationships would be his top concern if he were elected. His campaign has two other foundational ideas that he hasn't mentioned at as much length, but in some key ways their existence is more important than their content. "I always do things in threes," he told the Boston Globe, "because as a fighter pilot, you always had a stick in your hand and a throttle in the other, so you always had three fingers free."
Stufflebeem currently runs a crisis management and consulting business, NJS Group, whose clients include the Houston Texans and, yes, the New England Patriots. NFL franchise crisis management is a perhaps natural fit for the former Vice Admiral, given his war record—he was also Pentagon spokesman post-9/11—and also because he has a wealth of personal experience in the types of crisis an NFL team might encounter.
In 2008, Stufflebeem was reprimanded after being convicted of lying during an official investigation into an inappropriate relationship with a federal worker, beginning in 1989. He was eventually demoted to Rear Admiral and fired from his post as staff director. A few details from CNN in 2008:
Jane Doe told investigators that she and Stufflebeem began their affair on an overseas trip in 1989, that the married admiral told her he was a widower who was raising his children as a single parent and that they had sexual relations several times, including once in a White House room reserved for "military aides with overnight duties."
In a way, De Smith himself is why we're here with such varied and voluminous company. He spearheaded the 2011 CBA albatross, and has overseen the union as it's managed to turn being undermined into a matter of course (often due to grave tactical errors and misreadings) while fostering an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the NFL league office. Smith has also cosseted himself against change, going as far as to tell his challengers that they must go directly into the NFLPA offices to review information about the 32 team representative voters, and borrowing against future salary caps to boost the caps during and immediately after the last time he was up for election. That kind of cutthroat self-preservation doesn't exactly breed confidence at the top of the union, and the state of perpetual impotence and open combat has left enough people wondering if something else, anything else, might work better.
And that's the thing: few enough people have held this role—which is unique in many ways given the many legal allowances granted to the NFL, the large role of the media in the day-to-day (and the high volume but basic inefficacy of it during negotiations), and the evolving medical concerns about the basic premise of the industry—that who's to say a figurehead leader who has a sharp organizational mind, like Stufflebeem, who is ridiculous, might not work out better. Andrew Smith, for his part, seems to at least grasp the outrageousness of many of the publicly available NFLPA finances; maybe he could do something about rectifying them. These scenarios are unlikely, but not impossible. The union has been so weak for so long that it's fostered an environment where this list of clowns can make some legitimate claim. That's maybe the clearest indicator that things really have to change.
Photo via AP