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NFLPA Executive Director Needs To Pave Path For Future

Posted by sportsmarketingguy on March 13, 2009

One of the year’s most significant events in sports business will unfold this weekend when the NFL Player’s Association hosts their own Final Four and elects their next Executive Director.  The outcome will have a major impact on the NFL and relations between the league and its players that could forever alter America’s greatest sport.

In a search process that has been marred by controversy that seems to have weakened the NFLPA and questions the stability of the organization, the new NFLPA executive director will need to tackle several key issues to restore confidence and set the tone for his leadership.  It’s why I think the new NFLPA executive director will need to have some level of experience within the business of football, which would eliminate the outside candidate DeMaurice Smith.

What’s At Stake:

  • Leading the NFLPA through negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement and avoiding a potential lockout that could undermine the popularity of the sport
  • Restablishing trust with today’s active players and assuring them that the Union understands their needs and remains committed to them, an issue that was questioned by a faction of players
  • Repairing a relationship with retired players that had been on a vicious downward spiral in the last two years of Upshaw’s leadership  and resolving their issues, specifically related to lack of appropriate health insurance and failure to properly market retired players
  • Proactively identifying and capitalizing on opportunities to generate additional revenue for current and retired players through licensing, marketing and interactive.

The Final Four

The four finalists are all men with different backgrounds, experiences, strengths and paths that have led them to the final stage in the selection process.  In following the search and learning about each candidate, it appears they all have strengths that would help them lead and serve as the next executive director of the NFLPA – but which one is the best candidate?

All candidates will be able to make their case to the 32 NFL Player Representatives (one for each team) beginning on Saturday prior to a vote being held on Sunday or Monday.  The executive director will be determined by a simple majority of the 32 player representatives.  Sports Business Journal’s Liz Mullen and Daniel Kaplan do a great job in this week’s issue highlighting the candidates and process. Here is a quick synopsis:

Troy Vincent, 38 – An NFL player for 15 years that served as Union President for four years.  A successful entrepreneur, that was considered the favorite and viewed as the potential successor to Gene Upshaw until a falling out with Upshaw last March.

Trace Armstrong, 43 – An NFL player for 15 years that served as Union President for eight years. He and Upshaw shared the same agent, Tom Condon, and Armstrong and Condon both work together at CAA Sports.  Considered as the guy who is least likely to make significant changes and maintain the status quo.

David Cornwell, 48 – A former NFL counsel, agent and player lawyer that represented players on a range of issues from drug suspensions to agent disputes.  Cornwell was originally removed from consideration, but was invited back in after securing three recommendations from player representatives to be reconsidered in the process.

DeMaurice Smith, 45 – Has no sports industry experience is a former assistant United States attorney and a partner in a D.C. law firm Patton Boggs, he also worked with new U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder. He is considered a dark-horse candidate with strong political ties.

A Tarnished Process

The election marks the first time in the player union’s history that it will have a contested election and the process to find a new leader since Gene Upshaw’s unexpected passing from pancreatic cancer in August has devolved into a bad Boardroom segment on The Apprentice that has been played out in the media and sullied the reputation of Troy Vincent, a deeply religious man, winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, whose character had never been questioned.  The other candidates all managed to avoid any media scrutiny or questioning related to their experience and business interests.

It begs the question, why?  Why was Troy Vincent singled out?

Was it just because he has long been the frontrunner or is something deeper at play?  The accusations and questions have been relentless, ranging from an alleged attempt to stage a coup and overthrow Upshaw, questionable business dealings that could result in future lawsuits, leaking confidential NFLPA information related to player agents, to allegedly instigating a Congressional inquiry into the selection process. Mike Florio of did a phenemonal job in following the allegations related to the Congressional inquiry to determine that the U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D – VA) leaked the information out of concern that his daughter who has a high paying position as the union’s Director of Human Resources could lose her job if Vincent was elected it also questions, who up until the final stages had been running the day-to-day process for a new leader and how involved were staff members in the process compared to the NFL Executive Committee and player reps.

A number of accounts makes it clear that if Troy Vincent is elected that top union officials at the NFLPA would resign or be forced out and that scenario is less likely if Trace Armstrong is elected.

Last week in an interview with Don Banks of, Terri Upshaw, the widow of Gene Upshaw said she was not endorsing any one candidate, but made it clear she thought that Troy Vincent was not the right candidate to lead the NFLPA and came across as a Trace Armstrong supporter.

The selection process has become so contentious that according to SBJ’s Mullen and Kaplan, Vincent is requesting that the vote for executive director be taken as an open roll call because he does not trust some of the NFLPA staff. On Friday, the NFLPA Executive Committee is expected to meet and decide whether or not they will hold an open roll call vote to determine the next executive director.

While it is not the ideal way to conduct a vote, given the circumstances surrounding the final stages of the search process, it seems to make the most sense to ensure the overall integrity and transparency of the vote leaving no question that the new NFLPA executive director emerges with full support of all members.

I don’t know who the best candidate will be to lead the NFLPA. Armstrong, Vincent and Cornwell all have solid NFL experience that would be assets and would help them as executive director’s and set the path for a new way at the NFLPA.  Smith is an outsider that has no sports business experience, but has similar experience having served as an assistant U.S. attorney similar to the NBA Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter and NHL Players Association Executive Director Paul Kelly.

I do know that whatever happens this weekend in Maui, the NFLPA needs to end the finger-pointing, stop negatively questioning the finalists credentials and avoid leaks to the media coming out of the election on how the process unfolded if they want to maintain any sense of credibility with the NFL, owners and sponsors.


On Thursday night, the Associated Press seemed to clear Troy Vincent of all of the most serious allegations against him.  The AP also reported that all of Vincent’s companies were in good standing and reviewed an email from Upshaw to Vincent that outlines some sort of succession plan with Vincent as his successor.


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