By Sheilla Dingus
November 7, 2016
Rewind the NFL game clock to 2011; Commissioner Roger Goodell has entered the five-year mark of his tenure and is now beginning to assert his authority as the emperor-like ruler of the league. DeMaurice Smith, ascending to his second year as Executive Director of the NFLPA, is not a man to bow easily before the league’s absolute monarch. Darts and spears are hurled from both sides of the battle lines with collective bargaining negotiations in the crossfire. A battle royale emerges with players’ safety and income in the balance.
The NFL, which has the financial firepower to withstand, imposes a lockout of the players, who will now be without access to team facilities, coaches and doctors. In anticipation of the a standoff, the players had previously voted to decertify their union and pursue anti-trust litigation should mediation efforts fail, which they did due to extreme disagreement on issues such as salary cap, players’ safety, health benefits, revenue sharing and television contracts, transparency of financial information, rookie salaries, season length, and free agency guidelines.
The suit was filed on March 11, 2011. Named plaintiffs in the anti-trust litigation were Tom Brady (QB Patriots), Drew Brees (QB Saints), Peyton Manning (QB Colts), Vincent Jackson (WR Chargers), Ben Leber (OLB Vikings), Logan Mankins (G Patriots), Brian Robison (DE Vikings), Osi Umenyiora (DE Giants), Mike Vrabel (OLB Chiefs), and a new draftee from Texas A&M LB Von Miller.
Due to the efforts and fortitude of these player-plaintiffs and others, much progress was made in improving conditions for the men who play professional football, and a new CBA was approved on July 25, 2011. Since we’re at the halfway point of this hard-won bargaining agreement, I decided to check in with one of the original plaintiffs, Ben Leber, now retired after ten seasons, to get his take in regard to how he feels the CBA is working out, as well as his observations on the direction of the NFL as a whole.
Here’s a partial transcript of our recent conversation:
Sheilla: Ben, would you mind elaborating on your player involvement with the NFLPA?
Ben: It’s not long and lengthy, I was the assistant, to our primary rep with the Vikings. I did that for what…two or three years. I would go to meetings after meetings in Hawaii and Guam; and then I was involved with a lot of the CBA the new contract that was going on. I went to Washington quite a bit, to visit the PA. I went to a lot of the corporate meetings a lot of hearings and mediations happened and whenever they wanted a representative I would be there along with the legal counsel…and so that’s it….I didn’t do a lot. I wasn’t privy to a lot of the controlled meetings, but, yeah I was around enough.
Sheilla: You were one of the plaintiffs in the litigation against the NFL which was the ultimate bargaining chip against the league. I see that as a pretty big deal.
Ben: (Laughs) Yeah, I suppose it was.
Sheilla: What do you feel the biggest issues for players are currently, in regard to the CBA?
Ben: That’s a tough question. I’m so out of the league now and the actual working conditions that we bargained for. I would think that player safety is always probably number one. Whether you believe what the NFL’s saying or not about concussions in sports, I think everyone agrees that more needs to be done and so there just needs to be more funds; [there’s] more research to be done. I think if you left it up to the guys themselves, I think 99% of them would say they just want to know what the facts are. So I’d say it’s probably number one. You know overall it sounds like from the guys I talk to they’re happy with the working conditions as far as practice goes, the fewer full-contact days. I think they like it. From a pressure standpoint they don’t like it…but from a playing standpoint they like the fact that they’re not hit that much.
Sheilla: I understand the league has requested some negotiations because they’ve run out of stadium credits. Do you think that will happen?
Ben: I have no idea, Sheilla, I can’t even comment. Again, I haven’t been paying attention to what the stadium requests are and the credits and all that stuff. All I can say from a retired player’s perspective is, if Roger Goodell wants the $25 billion revenue in the next couple of years; I think he has that goal in like the next 10 years or something like that, I don’t see why they want credit. I mean they have plenty of money, okay. (Laughs) I really don’t understand why the NFL is always asking for handouts from state, local, county, and all that stuff and even players – bargaining chips from the players. I don’t get that, but from the outside looking in, it seems they have enough money to do whatever they want.
Sheilla: From what I’ve heard, it seems DeMaurice Smith is not very interested in negotiating with the NFL right now, and from what you’ve said the players are pretty happy with the way the CBA is working out. Do you see any issues that the players might want to leverage against the NFL while they’re apparently in the mood to negotiate?
Ben: I would say from a retired player’s perspective that I do, and it’s a possibility that the current players would think about their lifespan as a player and look beyond. I truly think the vested veterans should receive longer than just 5 years healthcare coverage.
That seems to be the one thing that all the older guys appreciate more and I think you’re going to need that more, so, if there’s a bargaining chip that the current players could lock on to, that I think the past players would appreciate, it would be longer term healthcare…I’ve spent a lot.
But overall, I think everyone’s pretty happy with the way the CBA is. Players are making more money. The rookies aren’t getting dirty contracts.
Sheilla: I understand that a lot of retired players are having difficulty in collecting disability benefits. What can you tell me about this?
Ben: I think from the time…the scale system…as far as how you qualify they’re making it really difficult to acquire – to get payments. I don’t know exactly the what the specifics are but I do know they did change the parameters of what constitutes a disability payment, and it’s almost…it’s not impossible but they make it really hard on the players to prove that they’re suffering and what they’re suffering from [football injuries] and it’s got to be a certain level of disability for them to even award these guys.
I will say this, I do think there is a fine line; and it’s tricky because, I think, the NFL players, they’re not all honest and all sincere, and I think those players probably should be denied a handout, free money, and all they have to do is say I have this, or I have that, so I do think there need to be protections, and an honest system set in place to keep those guys from running the system, but I don’t have an answer how to fix that. All I do know is that I’ve talked to a few players that have significant injuries and they are living in pain and the NFL says, “No, you don’t qualify, you’re a few things shy of what we look for,” so I don’t know how you’d protect on the one end and be human on the other end and allow these guys to get what’s due them.
Sheilla: What do you see as the view on the recent concussion settlement?
Ben: Honestly the guys that I talk to in the NFL, they don’t talk about the process and lawsuits, they don’t even talk about CTE that much, I don’t know if it’s just one of those things where it’s easier to kinda bury your head in the sand and say, “I feel great now and I’ll deal with it when I get there.” Again, I’m not the best or most knowledgeable on all that stuff, and how everybody feels about that process. The details are and I think that’s part of it, the history; there’s a lot of information sent to us, but it’s sent in such a legal [format.] There’s so much to take in that guys don’t have the time to read, I know I haven’t. I get a packet of information, pages and pages about this lawsuit, all legal jargon; I’m like, “What’s that? I’m not going to read this!”
Sheilla: What do you think about Article 46, and the way Roger Goodell has used the commissioner’s power? Do you feel this is something that is a priority with players? Something they will try to bargain away?
Ben: To me it’s not right. It’s always been in the CBA, it’s something that was grandfathered in as far as the commissioner having the almighty power to do whatever he wants. It sounds like it’s something Goodell will never give up; he’ll never think that…It will never be a bargaining chip – it is what it is. As the commissioner he feels it’s his right as the commissioner to oversee the league as he sees fit and that’s part of his duties. He gets paid handsomely for decisions like this and if he can’t do it, then they’re going find somebody else. I don’t think they’re going to start stripping away his responsibilities. Then what good is a commissioner they feel unless he does this? Yeah, I don’t agree with it. I just think that’s where they’re coming from. It’s not going to change, but I would love it for the players if it did change. I mean it only makes sense, I mean we have three branches of government; everybody oversees what everybody else is doing. I just don’t agree with this monopoly style, you know…power-base that he has, I’d like to change it, but I don’t think Goodell’s going to give it up.
Sheilla: While he’s made them a lot of money, Goodell has made a number of decisions that have caused the public to question the integrity of the league. It’s getting interesting this year since there’s been a sharp ratings decline. If this should continue, do you see the owners making changes?
Ben: I mean I would think so. I mean money speaks and that’s what counts in this business so if the owners feel like Goodell’s responsible for the lack of viewers and lack of revenue growth, then I think above everything else as far as the PR thing goes, there’s Ray Rice, and Adrian, and Josh Brown, and all these guys, if that doesn’t take him down then I think the money will.
Sheilla: Speaking of Josh Brown, what’s your take on how that was handled?
Ben: When I came up in the draft, going through the draft process I had people approach my high school teachers, counselors, people from my home town in South Dakota; members of the NFL and or teams specifically reached out to do back ground checks on me, my person my character, and all that stuff. Now they sell the NFL draft.
You know, if you’ve been around long enough they went not just back to when I was in college, but when I was in high school and then all of a sudden you’ve got fast forward to the present day and you have this.
I think like with Josh Brown where something comes across their desk and then a guy from Seattle who somehow is associated with the NFL security department emails the sheriff’s department with an anonymous hotmail account, never claiming or saying who he is, and asking for the records and when he didn’t get it, he goes, “Okay, he’s fine.” That’s the stuff that doesn’t make sense where the NFL said they investigated it fully and whatever. Did you really? And now the question is I don’t trust the official brought in on the investigation and information based on the knowledge of what we know now… that it was just some random guy who worked security for them that has a hotmail account. That’s where it’s a complete difference between what they’re saying and what they’re doing, and even as a player, I’m really concerned what the NFL is doing, knowing full well what they’re capable of. I know what they’re capable of. You can’t believe they’re not connected at every level of law enforcement from around the country on down to the federal government. If you want to know things, I’m sure they can get them. They get lazy about this stuff and it comes back to bite them in the ass.
Sheilla: I agree. From where I sit, I think most fans view Goodell as the person ultimately responsible for the majority of problems in the league. What do you think?
Ben: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of people that when they see the word, “Goodell,” they don’t see him in a positive light. A lot of people are not happy with that…I think there’s a lot of common sense mistakes that have been made that have really, really hurt the name of the NFL. And this is where I, as a retired player get upset.
We play this game and we wear that shield and all that stuff as a badge of honor. It’s a hard game to play; it’s hard to survive in the NFL, and that logo, is a shame because now people think that the NFL stands for…well actually not stands for, but represents domestic violence and big egos, and guys that are like Neanderthals, and just go on and do whatever they want, doing drugs and getting in trouble with police and all these negative things that kinda stain the shield; that’s what affects me.
Most importantly I want to look back my time as a player and I want my kids to be proud that I played in a league that was respectful and stands for things that I think we should stand for, you know, toughness and competitiveness, and some of those deeply held values of sports; not domestic violence and guys getting in trouble with the law. You know, that’s not what the league is supposed to be about and of course that’s what people think about with this shit.
Sheilla: From my perspective as a fan, I see this as a league problem that shouldn’t unfairly tarnish the good players. Most are exemplary in their charity work and community involvement. Like any sector of society, you’re going to have a few bad apples. I think that’s how most fans see it anyway.
Ben: I hope so.
For all the issues in public perception regarding the NFL/Players Association CBA, much was accomplished through the work of players like Ben Leber. The PA won $1 billion in additional benefits for retired players, increased minimum salaries and the continuation of a 16-game regular season schedule (Yes, the league was pushing for 18 games even in 2011.)
Numerous improvements in player safety were also won, including five fewer weeks of organized off-season practice, limited on-field practice time, limited full-contact practices, elimination of two-a-day practices in pads, and an increase in the number of days off of work.
Perhaps most importantly from the players’ standpoint, they prevented the owners from knocking them down to 42 percent of league revenues, with a decreasing percentage each year, which in my opinion is unconscionable seeing the vast wealth enjoyed over very long careers for owners as opposed to a very short career span for most players to establish their financial security. Starting in 2012, the players won 55 percent of national media revenue, 45 percent of all NFL Ventures revenue, and 40 percent of local club revenue.
The 2011 CBA also achieved unrestricted free agency after four years, a true salary floor, and increased roster size.
At the time of this negotiation league discipline had not yet become a problem, and the scandals that have rocked the NFL in the past five years weren’t an issue. Hopefully this, as well as better healthcare and disability provisions can be addressed and accomplished in the next bargaining period as new players pick up the torch and do their best re-establish and perpetuate the honor of the Shield.
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.