National Football League Players Association

National Football League Players Association
NFLPA Red w black wdmrk.png
Full name National Football League Players Association
Founded 1956
Country United States
Affiliation AFL-CIO
Key people Kevin Mawae, President
DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director
Office location Washington, D.C.

The National Football League Players Association, or NFLPA, is the labor organization for the professional football players in the National Football League (NFL). It has been at times a professional association, as well as a labor union. The goal of the current organization is to represent all players in matters concerning wages, hours, and working conditions, to protect players' rights as professional athletes, to ensure the terms of a collective bargaining agreement are met, to negotiate and monitor retirement and insurance benefits, to provide assistance to charitable and community organizations, and to enhance and defend the image of players and their profession on and off the field. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the NFLPA is led by President Kevin Mawae and Executive Director DeMaurice Smith.

Although it was founded in 1956, the NFLPA did not receive official recognition by the NFL until 1968 when a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was reached. After an adverse court decision in 1989, the union formally renounced its collective bargaining rights, converting into a professional association in order to pursue antitrust litigation designed to win free agency for its members. From 1989 to 1993, a series of lawsuits were filed by the NFLPA against the NFL, most notably one involving Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets and the other involving Reggie White of the Philadelphia Eagles. These lawsuits caused negotiations for an antitrust settlement, and that settlement paved the way for the NFLPA to reconstitute as a union and to negotiate a new CBA in the spring of 1993. Following the end of the 2008 season, the NFL team owners opted out of the extended 1993 CBA, which caused the agreement to expire at the end of an uncapped 2010 season. The NFLPA again renounced its collective bargaining rights on March 11, 2011, the date the agreement expired, to allow the players to pursue antitrust litigation through a class action through a class action filed by Tom Brady and other notable players. The NFL and the players came to terms on a new antitrust settlement on July 25, 2011, and the players thereafter signed union authorization cars to have the NFLPA reconstitute as a union. A new CBA was then negotiated and that agreement was ratified on August 4, 2011.


Early history


The players originally began to unionize because they had to play exhibition games without receiving pay.[1][2] In 1943, Roy Zimmerman's refusal to play an exhibition game without compensation resulted in his trade from the Redskins to Philadelphia.[3] With the pending arrival of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946, the NFL created a rule to ban a player for five years from NFL associated employment if he had left the NFL to join the AAFC.[4][5] This didn't stop all players from switching leagues. For example, Bill Radovich played for the Detroit Lions in 1945 and then left the NFL and played for the Los Angeles Dons in the AAFC.[6][7][8] Subsequently, Radovich was blacklisted by the NFL and was prevented from gaining employment with a team from the Pacific Coast League.[9][7] Unable to land a job in the NFL or the Pacific Coast League, Radovich filed suit against the NFL seeking damages.[10]The actual formation of the NFLPA came when two players from the Browns, Abe Gibron and Dante Lavelli, approached a lawyer, Creighton Miller, to form an association to help the players. They were eventually supported by both the Browns' and the Packers' players, and they announced the formation of the NFLPA in 1956.[11][12] The new association initially requested that the clubs provide players with pay for exhibition games, a minimum league-wide salary and per diem pay, uniforms and equipment paid for and maintained at the clubs' expense, and continued payment of their salaries when they were injured and unable to play.[13][14] Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts, John Gordy of the Detroit Lions, Frank Gifford and Sam Huff of the New York Giants, and Norm Van Brocklin of the Los Angeles Rams led this effort.[15][16]


Creighton Miller, who was a former Notre Dame football player turned lawyer, continued to represent the NFLPA in the early efforts.[17] Unable to win their attention by organizing, the association threatened to bring an antitrust lawsuit against the league. That threat became much more credible when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Radovich v. National Football League, 352 U.S. 445 (1957), that the NFL did not enjoy the same antitrust immunity that Major League Baseball did.[16][18] Jarett Bell of USA Today notes, the Radovich v. National Football League ruling "set the foundation for a series of court battles that have continued to present times."[18] Rather than face another lawsuit from the newly formed NFLPA, the owners agreed to a league minimum salary of $5,000, $50 for each exhibition game played, and medical and hospital coverage.[12] Although most of the NFLPA's requests were met, the owners did not enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA or formally recognize it as their exclusive bargaining representative, and instead agreed to change the standard player contract and alter governing documents to reflect the changes..[16][19]

From its inception, the members of the NFLPA were divided over whether it should act as a professional association or a union. Against the wishes of NFLPA president Pete Retzlaff and later Bernie Parrish, Miller refused to engage in collective bargaining, and instead ran the union as a "'grievance committee'".[19] The players continued to use the threat of antitrust litigation over the next few years as a lever to win better benefits, including a pension plan, a health insurance plan, and payment for exhibition games.[16]

In January 1968, Parrish proposed forming a players' union with the assistance of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (led by St. Louis Teamster leader Harold Gibbons and Hoffa top aide Charles "Chuckie" O'Brien) pushed the NFLPA into joining the trucking union.[20] In early November 1967, Parrish, backed by former Cleveland Browns player Jim Brown, began distributing union cards to form a Teamsters affiliate known as the American Federation of Pro Athletes.[21][22] The NFLPA rejected the overture at its meeting in Hollywood, Florida the first week of January 1968 and declared itself an unaffiliated union.[23][24] Although Parrish's proposal was defeated, Miller left the union as counsel. It is clear that he left the union, but some sources say he quit,[25] while others say he was forced out because he was not hawkish enough.[26] He was later replaced by two labor lawyers from Chicago: Dan Schulman and Bernie Baum.

In the 1960's the NFL faced competition from the new American Football League.[18] The new league provided potential leverage for the NFL players to improve their contracts.[18] In partial response to this threat, the NFL changed the owner-controlled pension plan to add a clause saying that a player would lose his pension if he went to another league.[18]

On January 14, 1964, the American Football League formed the AFL Players Association, and elected Tom Addison of the Boston Patriots president.[27] Rather than working with the AFLPA, the NFLPA chose to retain its independence and attempted to block the merger between the two leagues in 1966.[18] Continuing to believe that the existence of a rival league gave NFL players more bargaining power.[16]

Recognition and certification (1968–1983)

Six months after it declared itself an unaffiliated union, the NFLPA won recognition from the owners and its first collective bargaining contract. On July 3, 1968, after talks with the owners stalled, the NFLPA voted to strike, and the owners countered by declaring a lockout.[28] By July 14, 1968, the owners relented and the brief work stoppage came to an end.[29] Although a collective bargaining agreement had been attained, the concessions the players received were small as they were forced to accept the owners' terms as the AFLPA had already done so, leaving many members frustrated.[30] The owners compromised by agreeing to contribute about $1.5 million to the pension fund but maintained minimum salaries of $9,000 for rookies, $10,000 for veterans and $50 per exhibition game, and no independent arbitration.[29]

As the merger of the AFL and NFL became official in 1970, the unions agreed to meet for the first time in January 1970. Jealousy between both associations and fear on the part of the AFL players strained the negotiation process.[30] The NFL players wanted Ed Meador to become president of the newly combined association while the AFL players wanted Jack Kemp. Both sides compromised and agreed to recognize John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts as president on the condition that former AFL player Alan Miller would become general counsel for the organization.[30] The employers continued, however, to treat the union lightly in negotiations, prompting the NFLPA to formally and successfully petition the National Labor Relations Board for union certification.[16] The players went on strike in July 1970 after the owners locked them out for a brief period. The strike took place for only two days after owners threatened to cancel the season however, a new four year agreement was reached as a result of the strike.[30] The union won the right for players to bargain through their own agents with the clubs, the minimum salary increased to $12,500 for rookies and $13,000 for veterans, pensions were improved and dental care added to the insurance plan and players now had the right to meaningful representation on the Retirement Board, and the right to impartial arbitration for injury grievances.[30]

Following the agreement, many union representatives were let go by their teams. Unfazed, the players were determined to create a stronger union.[30] Attorney Ed Garvey was hired by the NFLPA in 1971 to act as their first executive director. Headquarters were established in Washington D.C. and a campaign was launched to help inform and educate the players.[30]

1974 strike

The 1970 CBA, ran until 1974. In July 1974, players went on strike looking for elimination of the option clause and compensation clause, popularly known as the "Rozelle Rule." The rule, named after commissioner Pete Rozelle, allowed Rozelle to award equal compensation to a team losing a free agent.[31] This rule severely limited player movement, as few teams were willing to risk signing a high-profile free agent only to risk having their rosters gutted. For instance, a team that signed a blue-chip free agent could be forced to give up its next two first-round draft picks, or worse. The strike lasted until August 10, 1974 when the players returned to training camp.[31]

While the litigation (Mackey v. NFL, 543 F.2d 606 (8th Cir. 1976), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 801) proved successful, the union found that making progress in bargaining was harder to achieve.[16] Although it eliminated the Rozelle Rule in bargaining in 1977 and obtained improved benefits and grievance procedures, it had not achieved true free agency or reached its goal of winning 55 percent of league revenues for players.[16] The NFL and NFLPA agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement in March 1977 that ran until 1982.[31]

1982 strike

The 1982 NFL strike began on September 21, 1982, and lasted 57 days until November 16, 1982.[31][32] During this time, no NFL games were played. The essential cause of the strike was the union demand that a wage scale based on seniority be implemented and a percentage of gross revenues of the league go to its players. The NFLPA wanted the percentage to be 55 percent, and according to the Los Angeles Times, this demand "dominated the negotiations."[33]

The major fault in the NFLPA plan was that it sought to have a team pay the same to a superstar with a short career (i.e. Running Back Tony Dorsett) as a backup lineman with the same years in the league. Unfortunately, the NFLPA had given away any negotiating leverage with the NFL with its earlier agreement guaranteeing its collective bargaining recognition and collection of dues by the teams.[34] The 1982 strike ended with a player revolt against its own union and the forced resignation of Executive Director Ed Garvey.[35] As a result of the strike, the season schedule was reduced from 16 games to nine and the playoffs expanded to 16 teams (eight from each conference) for a "Super Bowl tournament." A new five-year agreement was also put in place, giving severance packages to players upon retirement, an increase in salaries and post-season pay, and bonuses based on the number of years of experience in the league.[36] Still, NFL salaries remained less than other major league sports.[36]

NFLPA All-Star Games

During this time, the NFLPA promoted two "AFC-NFC 'all-star' games."[37] One was held at RFK Stadium on October 17, 1982, and the second was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 18.[37] The NFLPA hoped that the league's biggest stars would attend the game, but few of them did. The lack of health insurance during the work stoppage placed injury responsibility squarely on the players, forcing many of the players to reject their invitations. Some of the stars that did play neglected injury risk for the sake of money. One of the few stars who did play, future Hall of Famer John Riggins, explained "I guess I'll do just about anything for money."[37] Despite a local TV blackout and ticket prices starting at six dollars, neither game drew well; only 8,760 fans attended in Washington, D.C., and just 5,331 attended in Los Angeles.[37]

Gene Upshaw era (1983–2008)

In 1983, former Oakland Raider Gene Upshaw became the executive director of the NFLPA.[38] During his time as executive director, he oversaw the 1987 strike, several antitrust lawsuits, and the collective bargaining agreement of 1993.

1987 strike and decertification

The NFLPA struck for a month in 1987. On this occasion, however, they only succeeded in canceling one week of the season. For the next three weeks, the NFL staged games with hastily assembled replacement teams.[31][39] They were made up of several players cut during training camp, as well as a few veterans who crossed the picket lines.[31] Among the most prominent players to immediately cross the line were New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau and Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Randy White.[39] San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent later joined the replacement players as other strikebreakers.[39]

Faced with a lack of union support, the willingness of the networks to broadcast the replacement games, and hostile public sentiment, the union voted to go back to work on October 15, 1987, without a collective bargaining agreement in place.[40] They were forced to wait another week before they could resume play since they had failed to return by the owners' deadline.[citation needed] The union filed a new antitrust suit, and on December 30, the NFLPA asked federal judge David Doty to overturn the league's rules which restrict free agency.[31]

The Court of Appeals ultimately rejected the suit on the grounds that the labor exemption from antitrust liability protected the employers, even though the union was no longer party to a collective bargaining agreement that would have permitted the practices that the union was challenging.[31] In response, the union formally disclaimed any interest in representing NFL players in collective bargaining and reformed itself as a professional organization in 1989. Having done that, union members, led by Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, brought a new antitrust action against the NFL challenging its free agency rules as an unlawful restraint of trade.[31][41]

1993 collective bargaining

The players ultimately prevailed after a jury trial on their claims. That verdict, the pendency of other antitrust cases and the threat of a class action filed by Reggie White, then with the Philadelphia Eagles, on behalf of all NFL players brought the parties back to the negotiating table.[31] They finally agreed on a formula that permitted free agency. In return, the owners demanded and received a salary cap, albeit one tied to a formula based on players' share of total league revenues. The agreement also established a salary floor - minimum payrolls all teams were obliged to pay.[42] The settlement was presented to and approved by the judge who had heard the McNeil antitrust case in 1993. Once the agreement was approved, the NFLPA reconstituted itself as a labor union and entered into a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. The NFLPA and the league extended the 1993 agreement five times. The final extension came in March 2006 when it was extended through the 2010 season after the NFL owners voted 30-2 to accept the NFLPA's final proposal.[31]

DeMaurice Smith era (2009–present)

Following the death of Gene Upshaw in 2008, Richard Berthelsen stepped in as interim executive director, serving from August 2008 until March 2009.[43] The NFLPA appointed DeMaurice Smith as the executive director on March 16, 2009.[44] During Smith's time as executive director, the issue that dominated discussion was the 2011 lockout.[45]

2011 lockout

In May 2008 the owners decided to opt out of the 1993 arrangement and play the 2010 season without a agreement in place.[46] Without a new agreement, the 2010 NFL season was played without a salary cap.[47] Some of the major points of contention included openness of owners' financial books, the rookie pay scale, money-back guarantees on players that fail to perform, players' health and retirement benefits, details of free agency during an uncapped year, the cost and benefit of new stadiums, players' salaries, extending the regular season to 18 games, and the revenue-sharing structure.[46] By March 2011, the NFLPA and the NFL had not yet come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, thus failing to resolve the labor dispute. Accordingly, the NFLPA filed papers to decertify as a union on March 11, 2011 and take the labor dispute to court.[48] Less than two hours after the players' union decertified, quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees filed a class-action lawsuit as a preemptive move to prevent the lockout from impeding on the season.[48] By the end of the day, the players had officially been locked out. After the settlement of Brady et. al v. NFL anti-trust suit, a majority of players signed union authorization cards approving the NFL Players Association to act as their exclusive collective bargaining representative.[49] The NFL officially recognized the NFLPA’s status as the players’ collective bargaining representative on July 30, 2011.[50] The NFL and NFLPA proceeded to negotiate terms for a new collective bargaining agreement, and the agreement became effective after ratification by the players August 4, 2011.[51] The new collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021.[52]


Since 2006, the NFLPA has sponsored a post-season college football all-star game. The game was played in El Paso, Texas until 2011 when it was moved to the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.[53]


The current president of the NFLPA is Kevin Mawae, a former NFL center, and the executive director is DeMaurice Smith. As of September 2011, the executive committee consisted of the following current and retired NFL players: Charlie Batch, Drew Brees, Brian Dawkins, Domonique Foxworth, Scott Fujita, Sean Morey, Tony Richardson, Jeff Saturday, Mike Vrabel, and Brian Waters.[54] Each NFL team also has a player representative, along with two to three alternate representatives.[55]

Leader Year(s)
Executive Directors
John Gordy January 16, 1969–November 1, 1969[15]
None November 1, 1969–1971
Ed Garvey 1971–June 13, 1983[56]
Gene Upshaw June 13, 1983–August 21, 2008[38]
Richard Berthelsen August 21, 2008–March 16, 2009 as Interim Executive Director[43]
DeMaurice Smith March 16, 2009–present[44]
NFLPA (pre-merger)
Bill Howton January 26, 1958–January 4, 1962[57]
Pete Retzlaff January 4, 1962–January 5, 1964[citation needed]
Ordell Braase January 5, 1964–January 8, 1967[58]
Mike Pyle January 8, 1967–January 11, 1968[23]
John Gordy January 11, 1968–January 16, 1969[15]
John Mackey January 16, 1969–1970[59]
Tom Addison January 14, 1964–1965[27]
Jack Kemp 1965–1970[27]
NFLPA (post-merger)
John Mackey 1970–1973[30][60]
Bill Curry 1973–May 31, 1975[61]
Kermit Alexander May 31, 1975–March 8, 1976[62]
Dick Anderson March 8, 1976–January 26, 1978[63]
Len Hauss January 26, 1978–1980[64]
Gene Upshaw 1980–April 25, 1986[38]
Marvin Powell April 25, 1986–March 4, 1988[65]
George Martin March 4, 1988–June 13, 1989[66]
Mike Kenn June 13, 1989–March 23, 1996[67]
Trace Armstrong March 23, 1996–April 1, 2004[68]
Troy Vincent April 1, 2004–March 19, 2008[67][69]
Kevin Mawae March 19, 2008–present[70]


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  • Alego, Matthew (2007). Last Team Standing: How the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles—The "Steagles"—Saved Pro Football During World War II. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 9780306815768. 
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  • Carroll, Bob; Michael Gershman and John Thorn (1997). Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 9780062701701. 
  • Coenen, Craig R. (2005). From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920-1967. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 9781572334472. 
  • Lyons, Robert (2009). On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. ISBN 9781592137312. 
  • Oriard, Michael (2007). Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807831427. 
  • Piascik, Andy (2007). The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns—Pro Football's Greatest Dynasty. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing. ISBN 9781589793606. 
  • Ratterman, George; Robert G. Deindorfer (1962). Confessions of a Gypsy Quarterback: Inside the Wacky World of Pro Football. New York, NY: Coward-McCann. 
  • Staudohar, Paul D. (1986). The Sports Industry and Collective Bargaining. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press. ISBN 9780875461519. 
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