September 11, 2017
In late August, Cyrus Mehri was scheduled to interview with Bryant Gumbel of HBO’s Real Sports. The night of the interview, he had dinner with NFLPA President Eric Winston out of respect and as a courtesy; to announce his plan to challenge DeMaurice Smith for the elected position of NFLPA Executive Director. He wanted to personally deliver the news to Winston before the announcement aired publicly. It was at that fateful meeting that Mehri learned of a new NFLPA Constitution which had recently and secretly been adopted.
On August 27, just days after Mehri’s candidacy had been announced publicly, Mark Maske of the Washington Post wrote:
NFL player representatives are scheduled to vote by mid-October on whether to retain DeMaurice Smith as the union’s executive director and bar other candidates from challenging him for the job, under a new set of election procedures not previously disclosed publicly.
The voting rules, outlined in a set of documents obtained by The Washington Post, establish what amounts to a referendum this fall on Smith retaining the job he has held since 2009. The procedures put the decision of whether to sign Smith to a contract extension in the hands of a 14-member selection committee and the board of team-by-team player representatives. If those players opt to keep Smith, the union would not consider other candidates for the executive director job.
According to Maske, a spokesperson for the NFLPA said “the election procedures were voted on and implemented by the board of player reps,” but declined to further comment. The revision of election and voting rules took place sometime after a hotly contested election in 2015, but until recently the details were never published and it is believed that the new Constitution and election changes were implemented only months ago. After reading the Washington Post article, I checked the NFLPA website to learn more and discovered that the old 2007 Constitution was still linked there.
In a nutshell, instead of a general election spanning the entirety of the membership, the new process is as follows: a 14-member board will vote as to whether or not to grant a contract extension to current Executive Director DeMaurice Smith or open the election to challengers. The board consists of the NFLPA president, the treasurer, nine executive committee members and the three longest tenured player reps outside that group. If the fourteen committee members vote unanimously to keep Smith, he will retain his position unchallenged. If fewer than six vote to extend Smith, the job will be declared open. If seven to thirteen committee members vote to retain Smith, the matter will be deferred to the player reps, and then if two-thirds of the player reps vote to keep Smith in place, his job is secure. If Smith fails to secure a two-thirds majority vote, the job will be declared open and the selection committee is authorized to select from two to four candidates to vie for the position. Mehri, could be, but wouldn’t necessarily be one of the candidates chosen by the committee. Got it? Nothing like making things simple.
Cyrus Mehri is a noted attorney who has litigated and won numerous civil rights and discrimination cases against such corporate giants as Texaco, Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, and Morgan Stanley. He has been called “Corporate America’s Scariest Opponent” and one of “Washington’s Ten Most Feared Lawyers.” Mehri has been referred to as “something of a one-man army in the battle against business as usual,” by Fast Company magazine. He’s also no stranger to the NFL, as it was his leadership in working with the league, and NFL legends John Wooten, Kellen Winslow, Harry Carson and Tony Dungy which led to the league’s implementation of the Rooney Rule in 2002, which requires NFL Clubs to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching positions. Entering the 2017 season, a record 14 NFL Clubs are led by a minority head coach or general manager and many position coaches and assistants are now breaking the diversity barrier as well. The rule has even been viewed as a success outside the NFL and has been a model for increasing diversity in a number of other industries.
Since Mehri has both a civil rights and labor background and these are two of my primary areas of interest, I was intrigued by what he might bring to the table. After checking out his vision and platform I was impressed. I decided to contact him and request an interview but didn’t get my hopes up since the NFLPA has ignored my requests for comment on a consistent basis, so I was very pleasantly surprised when Mehri responded and agreed to speak with me. As our phone interview began, he caught me by surprise as he started off by asking me questions. He’d done his homework and was quite familiar with my work and website. He seems equally prepared – if not more so- to take on the challenges facing the Players’ Union.
When I mentioned that I felt the players have been let down in a number of areas and hinted that I felt DeMaurice Smith might have dropped the ball, he stated, “Well, I’m from a very different value system and approach than De. Everything is contentious. Everything is litigated. The relationship is completely poisoned. And while you’re adversarial in a labor/management relationship, the labor does better historically if there’s vehicles for actual dialogue and problem solving. I’ve spent fifteen years through two commissioners, and various senior executives at the league office,” he said, “getting a lot accomplished.” He related that much of this is simply problem-solving and finding a way to make changes beneficial for all. “So right now, that [NFL/NFLPA] relationship is so broken, it’s like a bird can’t fly with two broken wings, you know what I mean? So that’s kind of where they are.”
Mehri sees the NFLPA under Smith as “essentially a corporate law takeover of a major labor union.” He explained, “These guys hire outside big, fat, corporate law firms, spend millions of dollars on them, and they spend most of their time shutting down labor rights, shutting down access to courts for workers, shutting down higher wages. I’m trying to say if you have corporate lawyers taking over, the unions are going to come up with something like this. You know what I mean? Because a labor lawyer wouldn’t do that because you don’t have legitimacy as a labor lawyer if you don’t have competition.”
His vision statement looks at the current situation:
[I]n 2011 Smith relied on the courtroom instead of the inherent strength of the collective will of the players – committed members of the NFLPA – which exacerbated the massive economic harm to players when they received a predicable defeat in federal court in the backdrop of the CBA talks. Having spent most of his career representing the most powerful as a prosecutor and a lawyer for corporations, Smith’s work experiences are a poor fit for the task at hand, fighting for workers. As a result, his playbook is thin and predictable and repeatedly plays into the hands of the owners.
We began to discuss Mehri’s platform and one of the points that most interested me – a shorter CBA period. The current CBA was negotiated for ten years – an enormous period of time considering that an average player’s career is only 3.3 years. Many of the men who are now playing in the NFL have had no say in their union’s negotiations and won’t because they’ll be out of the league before the next bargaining period begins. But they’ll bear the brunt of the failures of the current bargaining agreement.
“We need to shake up the marketplace for NFL players,” Mehri said, explaining that the average career length for an NFL player has dropped from five to just over three years during Smith’s tenure. “Why wait four to five years to get that second contract? Why does Odell Beckham have to wait until year five? We know he’s a superstar.”
He continued, “There are other loopholes in the salary cap that I want to close. And so, what I want to do is create a marketplace change so that more people will get guaranteed money and more people will get wealth earlier in their careers.” In order to accomplish this he wants to focus on implementing a players’ seat at league strategic planning to insure their ideas and concerns are addressed; shorten the current 4-5 year period for a second contract to 3 years; create a task force of coaches and general managers to examine ways to reverse the downward trend of career length; increase roster sizes from 53 to 60 players; and help increase the league’s revenue pie while simultaneously delivering a “fair share” to players, curbing the economic delta created by the current CBA.
I noted that in looking at his platform as a whole, it seems to be a total package – designed to increase career length, build salary and benefits and get players more involved in staking out their own futures. I also tossed in my concern that some players may not be paying attention.
“Well, it’s hard to pay attention when you’re doing your practices and getting ready for the next game or trying to make the team,” he replied, “but you are the first reporter to have that astute observation of the platform. A lot of people call me up that haven’t even read the platform. Other people have said, ‘Cyrus, this is a more thought-out platform than any of the prior candidates had in prior years.’”
Because I often write about and advocate against the challenges and difficulties in receiving benefits after retirement and other barriers to the health and well being of players, I found Mehri’s ideas a breath of fresh air. Instead of the current practice of jumping through hoops and plodding through what seems like an endless maze in order to qualify, for benefits, Mehri plans to bargain a reduced eligibility threshold for all benefits and create a new neurocognitive benefit that is based on years of service in the league and requires no causation proof.
“What I want to do is get away from the proof hurdles that everybody has to go through. Keep in mind, CTE is not easy to prove. You have to be dead to prove it. So that’s a high bar.” Mehri explained what he has in mind, “There are categories of work that by definition have health issues, like coal miners, people working in nuclear facilities; and so, the labor movement and management over time have moved towards, ‘we know you can get these diseases,’ so the presumption is, and the way I envision it, we just do it as a formula. Now maybe some people got banged up in college more, or high school more, or whatever, but I would do it based on what they did [length of time] in the pros.”
Mehri also wants to change the requirement for vesting, backing it up at least a year, possibly two and eventually working to bring it in line with the day one vesting that is standard in the NHL and MLB. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League all offer some form of health insurance for life to their retirees. The NFL covers only the first five years of retirement. That’s another area that Mehri plans to bridge the gap on.
He has put together an inclusive package that consists of a reduction of preseason games to three without increasing regular season games; establishment of a new system for player discipline that implements a series of checks and balances on the commissioner; increased opportunities for personal expression; and an enhancement of resources for educational and financial opportunities, while encouraging charitable pursuits and community involvement.
“Everything on my platform is achievable,” Mehri said, “Everything. But no one believes in me so far. Like – Bryant Gumbel was skeptical. Everyone is skeptical.” I ran into this a bit also when discussing Mehri’s platform with a retiree. He said, “It would take ten CBA’s to accomplish all that.”
Mehri says he gets a lot of “’I didn’t get the owners to do this,’” and responds, “Well, I’ve got a lot done with these owners already. Nobody thought we had a chance with the Rooney Rule, for example.” Another achievement Mehri has to his credit in negotiating with the NFL – with no bargaining chips in play at all – supplementing the Wonderlic Test which had been administrated every year at the combine. He felt it under reported the true attributes of players so he co-created the Player Assessment Test to replace it and saw it through to implementation. He feels it gives coaches a better tool to use in developing a player’s potential.
“If you can find a ‘win-win’ that’s preferable for everyone,” I agreed.
“Right,” he said, “And you can’t. . . they hate De so much, they can’t even have a discussion. Referring to Smith, Mehri then says, “He’s made so much money for the owners when he should be making money for the players.”
“[T]here’s no way I’m not going to do 10 times better for all NFL players,” Mehri assured me.
He believes that much of the problem is centered in the fact that Smith, and by extension, the Union have made everything contentious. “They can’t even sit down and be constructive,” he said. “Here’s a couple of things, too. Like I think that instead of being an actual labor leader, De Smith is a caricature of a labor leader. In the hundred-plus years of the labor movement, no one has ever said my workers are almost inevitably going to have a work stoppage. Right? Because it doesn’t create any fear at all to management because it’s four years down the road. Half the work force is going to change completely in four years.”
I noted that NFLPA President, Eric Winston is on the verge of retirement. “He’s putting out some strong rhetoric as well,” I injected, “but it’s highly unlikely that he is going to be playing when all this takes place. And a lot of the player reps are veterans whose careers are a lot closer to the end than the beginning.”
Mehri believes that Smith’s rhetoric is disguised as a campaign ploy to ensure a long-term contract. “I mean, it became really clear to me that it was, you know, a campaign ploy. Once we found out about the timing of the secret election. Do you know what I’m saying? In other words, galvanize people, today, with that kind of rhetoric, just so he can get his contract. That’s how I see it.” He clarifies that “You would normally galvanize people, like, six months away from a walkout, not four years in advance.”
Mehri’s remarks make sense. I’ve seen the push by Smith and player reps to “save your money” for a strike that they project will take place four years down the road, and have often puzzled that the people they’re talking to for the most part will not be playing in four years and many who will be playing are just now beginning college and have no money to save.
I mentioned to Mehri that I found it peculiar that the NFLPA kept their old constitution on their website, and that I first found the new one on his. He told me that he posted it shortly after the Washington Post article because a number of reporters had contacted him trying to find it. What I find most curious, however is that shortly after Mehri made it available to the public the NFLPA followed suit and updated their website in response. Prior to our interview, Mehri wasn’t aware that the NFLPA had countered. “Yeah. Well, it shouldn’t be secret then,” he said, continuing, “And the scandal that will be pulled at some point is that they didn’t properly explain this to the player reps who signed off on it. And so far what I’m hearing is none of them recall even signing off on it at all, let alone having an adequate explanation and discussion.”
Mehri explained that in labor unions constitutional amendments are “done in neon lights, big open forums, everybody knows about it, the rank and file know about it. It’s not done in secrecy.” He added, “And the fact that it was — they were misleading the world, that they would follow their longstanding tradition of having elections every three years in March, so it was kind of a shocking revelation, and it shows me how vulnerable De must feel – he doesn’t have a record to defend.”
In view of this information, I speculated that perhaps this was the reason for all the prior work stoppage rhetoric. To rally the forces so to speak. If that was their plan, he related, “I think I disrupted that plan. And so now one out of the 14, hopefully, will say, ‘Hey you know, choice is good. Competition is good, because there’s a legitimate viable candidate out there, and there are probably other candidates too.’”
“I remain confident,” Mehri said. “If for some reason they shut it down, I’m still going to campaign because my goal was through the course of six months to win the hearts and minds of NFL players. I’m going to fight every day for players’ choice to determine their own destiny.”
I admitted that I did indeed find it shocking to learn of the amended constitution in the manner it came out through the announcement of his candidacy.
“For sure there was a bit of luck in this,” he replied, “because if I announced at the end of September, which was my original plan, it would have already been too late.”
Among the retired players endorsing Mehri’s run are Mike Singletary, Bob Lilly, “Mean” Joe Greene, Jim Brown, Kellen Winslow Sr., Harry Carson, and John Wooten. Mehri says it was at their urging that he decided to toss his hat into the race. He gave it serious thought and developed a platform that he feels will elevate the Union and its members, but, as stated on his website, he doesn’t feel that he “has a monopoly on good ideas,” and welcomes input for players past and present. He also stated that he’s interested in hearing from wives as well, because the needs and challenges faced by their families are equally important.
As emphasized on his website, he says,
“The next Executive Director of the NFLPA will negotiate the next CBA. The stakes for players rights now could not be higher.”
This election period promises to be anything but business as usual. Having battled corporate giants for the past twenty-five years on behalf of workers, Mehri seems more than ready to take on the NFL and says that he “has a dynamic playbook ready to deploy on behalf of NFL players.” Some effective plays are definitely needed to overcome the deficit the union has found itself in over the last 6 years.
It’s just after half-time and some forcefully creative moves are needed to pull ahead and carry the team to success in 2021. As an advocate for fairness and the well being of players past, present, and future, I’m hoping that Cyrus Mehri will have the opportunity to intercept the ball and bring it into the end zone.
To learn more visit: cyrus4nflpa.com
Special thanks to Mr. Mehri for speaking with me
to both Copley Court Reporting and Wendy Priest for providing transcription of the interview.
Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.