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Universal Declaration of Player Rights & The NFLPA’s Future

Universal Declaration of Player Rights

The World Players Association announced a Universal Declaration of Player Rights in mid-December. The declaration is not a binding agreement between any two parties, but an “articulation of athletes’ rights” across the globe. The approval of many player associations were gained in constructing the declaration.

The World Players Association is an organized group of more than 100 player associations across the world. The association includes massive unions such as FIFPro (the world soccer players union) and the NFL Players Association. While the declaration brings forth ideals for the betterment of athletes lives across the globe, it also brings to mind the importance of the NFLPA strengthening its own union.

The National Football League is the richest and most high-profile sports league in the United States. Its players association represents roughly 1700 active players, and also weighs the interests of future members of the NFLPA and retired players who were once members. Despite this, the NFLPA is arguably the weakest players’ association of the four major United States-based sports leagues.

It is admirable that the NFLPA is involved in setting an agenda to protect players rights worldwide. However, its greatest contribution would be to further the interests of its own players. If the players association in the richest league in the United States has little power, it is difficult for them to lead globally on players’ issues.

Lessons from the NHL Lockout

When I worked as a National Hockey League player agent, Don Fehr lead multiple regional agent meetings leading up to the 2012 NHL lockout. Fehr had led the MLBPA, which was and remains the strongest of the US players associations. Major League Baseball remains the final major US league without a salary cap. Fehr’s message to our group of agents was clear and simple. Don Fehr himself could not provide a desired result or win for the players. He was the conduit through which the players worked and he was the overseer and negotiator who could implement the strategy the players preferred. The end result of the new collective bargaining agreement would be won or lost by the players themselves.

Fehr explained that the players association was only as strong as its weakest links. The more players who became exhausted by the fight, whether it be financially or otherwise, the easier it would be for the NHL to win the negotiation. The players needed to have a singular focus towards what they sought from the negotiation, save money to be financially secure throughout the lockout, and not deviate from the NHLPA’s stated positions. In 2004-05, the NHL broke the NHLPA after a cancelled season. Fehr’s leadership led to the players sticking together and reaching a fair compromise with the league in 2012-13.

The Future of the NFLPA

In 2021 the NFL and NFLPA will collectively bargain again, ten years after the NFL decisively won the advantage in the 2011 negotiation. The NFLPA would be keen to follow the same roadmap as the NHLPA. Their advantage is that the NFL is impressively profitable across all 32 of its markets, and the possibility of a stoppage could damage team values and profits to a degree that owners would not dare to risk. Their disadvantage is what led to the NFL players losing the 2011 negotiation; the players broke, mostly due to poor financial planning.

The NFLPA comprises a massive group of 1700 players, with 53 players on each 32-man roster. This number dwarfs the NBA, NHL, and MLB. The large number of players also provides challenges to links in the chain breaking. The NFLPA implemented a financial strategy to support its players in 2011, yet many found themselves in financial peril. NFL players have complained about the power the league and commissioner Roger Goodell have wielded over them for years. 2021 will prove if they have the discipline to stand in the ring and bargain for those issues. If not, the public’s empathy for their situation will likely wane and further diminish their future bargaining power.

The players could learn something from NFL referees, who were infamously locked out in 2012. The lockout culminated in an embarrassing on and off-field display for the NFL. A declaration of player rights is a start but the greatest contribution to players’ rights globally is for the NFLPA to stay united, win the concessions they have sought for years from the NFL, and be a strong example to other players associations worldwide.

– Andrew T. Warren

Universal Declaration of Players Rights