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NFLPA, agents at odds as CBA talks near (and the owners love it)

DeMaurice Smith, Roger Goodell

FILE - In this July 25, 2011, file photo, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, left, and NFL football Commissioner Roger Goodell speak during a news conference at the NFL Players Association in Washington, after the NFL Players Association executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously to approve the terms of a deal with owners to the end the 4½-month lockout. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

AP

Lost in the commencement of free agency was the climax to long-lingering hostilities between the NFL Players Association and the agents who represent players in contract negotiations.

A session between a group of players and a group of agents happened on Monday in conjunction with the NFLPA’s annual meetings. Based on communications with multiple sources, it did not go well. With the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring in less than two years, that will be music to the ears of the folks who have billions in their bank accounts.

PFT has obtained a copy of a memo sent by the NFLPA to all registered contract advisors explaining the tone and content of the meeting between approximately 60 players and six agents: Peter Schaffer, Christina Phillips, Jayson Chayut, Steve Caric, Pat Dye Jr., and Adisa Bakari.

"[P]layers were dismayed by the lack of any input by the agents on ‘real world’ options when the Owners are likely to push back strongly on changes to these and other economic and restriction issues,” the memo explains. “For example, there was no discussion on how we should collectively build leverage in order to substantially strengthen players’ ability to effectuate these changes and gains, and/or their plans to prepare players for a lockout or a strike. Rather, at times, the session turned into a lecture on why players ‘should’ believe that these issues are important and almost suggesting that they had the unilateral ability to simply change them. Accordingly, there was a general feeling among the players that the agents came into the session grossly underestimating our players’ understanding of complex CBA/negotiating issues; many of the agents’ remarks focused on emphasizing their value in the CBA negotiation process, and thus the session was clearly not as productive as it could have been.”

More will be written in subsequent items here about the economic and restriction issues. To the extent that the agents shared hard truths with players on key topics (for example, the owners will not relinquish the franchise tag without a major concession in return), the players shouldn’t shoot the messenger. To the extent that the players want to make significant gains in the next CBA (for example, getting rid of the franchise tag), the agents should realize that their role isn’t to tell the players why shouldn’t want these things but how they could at least try to go about getting them.

Based on the memo, it appears that one specific incident caused angst and concern among the players.

“During the meeting Peter Schaffer asserted that he represents the bulk -- if not all -- agents,” the memo explains. “There was a portion of the meeting when one agent made an unfortunate remark that many players interpreted as extremely condescending, and during a rather heated exchange about the ‘roles’ of the agents in this business, other agents specifically and personally targeted an Executive Committee member about the contract that he signed,” the memo explains. “The Player leadership does not know which agents are members of Mr. Schaffer’s representational group, and it may become important that current players know who these agents are in light of some of the comments and information learned during the meeting (including the existence of a derogatory email extolling agents to publicly attack a current player and his decision to represent himself).”

The member of the Executive Committee mentioned in the memo is Richard Sherman, and the reference is to the contract he negotiated for himself in 2018. A year later, multiple agents continue to believe it was a bad deal, and Sherman and other players (like Russell Okung, another member of the Executive Committee) continue to be upset about the criticism of Sherman’s deal.

The memo concludes with a statement from the NFLPA Executive Committee: “We do believe that agents can play an important role in helping to prepare our men for issues that matter to us, and we will continue to seek input, as we have in the past. We want to emphasize that contract advisors are, above all else, agents of this Player’s Union, and all agents owe a fiduciary duty to their clients and the collective body of players. The invitation extended to the agents to attend the auxiliary meeting was done in the hope of building better relationships and to provide a constructive conversation as we prepare for the expiration of the CBA. However, both the tone and specific statements by some of the agents showed an overall lack of understanding of the role of the elected player leadership and at times specifically demonstrated a lack of respect for the rights of players to represent themselves if they so choose.”

Schaffer provided a statement to PFT regarding the meeting, which as one source in the room explained to PFT ultimately resulted in progress, despite some difficult discussions early in the process.

“We want to thank the NFL Players Association for inviting several agents to attend the recent auxiliary meeting of the NFLPA Board of Representatives,” Schaffer said. “The agents in attendance were selected by the NFLPA, and represented a cross-section on the agent community and participated in the interest of solidarity and cohesion with all members of the NFLPA, in order to work together to build a strong relationship to identify both problems within our common interest profession, and solutions. The opportunity to have such varying perspectives and sharing of viewpoints in one room, particularly as we prepare for the upcoming expiration of our labor agreement, is rare and unique. It is step forward that the NFLPA allowed for and heard suggestions that led to spirited debates, without which there can be no real solutions and transparency. The agents attending shared with the players a common heartfelt passion for both the business and game of professional football. We look forward to future opportunities for various groups of agents and members of the NFLPA to gather and continue a dialogue for the betterment of all current, former and future NFL players.”

However it plays out from here, the union and the agents need to find a way to work together. Relentless criticism by agents of the 2011 CBA -- criticism which often ignores the reality that NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith negotiated the best deal possible when faced with a workforce not inclined to miss a single game check -- has slowly and surely pushed the two parties apart. It’s time for them to resolve those difference and get on the same page.

Which means that, initially, the players need to get on the same page about the agents, and the agents need to get on the same page about the players. Eventually, they will be facing a group of NFL and ownership representatives who have been on the same page for decades. And they will be intent on keeping the gains made in 2011 (they’ll say the current agreement works for both sides), they will try to get more, possibly under the threat of a lockout, and absent a lockout they will dare players to strike.

Unless players are willing to strike and make it stick for a full season, they need to be ready to use all other available tools in order to get the best possible deal, the kind of deal that both sides will be happy with over the long haul, ensuring the kind of labor peace that will fuel the ongoing growth of a game from which players, agents, owners, and many others benefit. That won’t happen until players and agents are operating in unison, the way that the owners always do and always will.

And if the players and agents can’t come together, the owners will win. Again.