SBJ/20090209/This Week's News

Will compromise candidate emerge for NFLPA?

The NFL Players Association executive committee is set to make the final cut in the field of candidates for the union’s top job this week, but critics are questioning whether the winner will be able to effectively lead America’s largest sports labor group because the process has become so clouded by politics.

With major labor negotiations on the horizon with the NFL, which paid the players $3.5 billion this past season, much hangs in the balance.

But the search in recent weeks has been dominated by congressmen arguing over who said what about leading candidate Troy Vincent, questions over a U.S. representative’s daughter who works at the union, and even threatening comments posted on a popular industry Web site against that woman, NFLPA director of human resources Mary Moran.

Although the search has popularly been seen as a two-horse race between Vincent and Trace Armstrong, both past NFLPA player presidents, some in the industry think that, as a result of the chaos, anything could happen. The finalists travel to Maui next month to argue their case before 32 player representatives, who are slated to elect the winner.

“Now, it’s bizarre,” said Gary Roberts, who formerly worked at Covington & Burling, the NFL’s longtime law firm. Roberts, now the dean of the law school at Indiana University at Indianapolis, thinks neither Vincent nor Armstrong will be elected executive director.

Vincent is seen as having a plan to fire many top executives at the union who have been there for decades, including acting Executive Director Richard Berthelsen, sources said, while Armstrong is seen as someone who would save jobs of longtime union staff.

The search has been seen by some
as a race between Vincent (left) and
Armstrong, but as a result of the
chaos, observers are saying
anything could happen.

“I would be surprised if either of them gets it, because both of them are unacceptable to factions within the union,” Roberts said. “When you have two or more highly controversial candidates for a leadership position, what usually happens is some compromise candidate emerges. He is nobody’s first choice, but nobody hates him either.”

Bill Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, said he had no idea who would win the job, but noted: “It does look as though they are very badly polarized. No matter who comes out on top, you are going to have a divided union.”

Attempts to reach Vincent, Armstrong and Berthelsen were unsuccessful.

There are five candidates remaining, the others being former NFL players Ben Utt and Jim Covert and Washington, D.C., attorney DeMaurice Smith. All five are expected to interviewed by the executive committee in Dallas this week.

The executive committee last month eliminated four candidates, including player attorney David Cornwell, and utilities executive Rod West, both of whom some industry insiders had seen as strong compromise candidates in the event of a split between supporters of Vincent and Armstrong.

Vincent is expected to be questioned on what contact he had with four U.S. congressmen who wrote a letter to the NFLPA and the Department of Labor on Jan. 8, raising concerns about the fairness of the search. At his last interview in Dallas on Jan. 19, Vincent denied that he had met with the four, sources said, but information has come out since then to indicate otherwise.

The letter’s authors are Gregory Meeks of New York, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, Edolphus Towns of New York and Bobby Rush of Illinois, all Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who did not sign the letter, told SportsBusiness Journal last month that he asked all four of the letter writers why they did it and that two of the four said they met or talked with Vincent before expressing concerns. Moran said he went to them at the behest of his daughter Mary, who works at the union. Moran said she was asked to approach him by her bosses, Berthelsen and No. 2 executive Clark Gaines.

Meeks, in a conference call last week with reporters, said he met with Vincent, although he could not recall exactly when, and his office would not provide an exact date. Meeks did confirm that he met with Vincent before Vincent’s last interview for the job in Dallas, in which Vincent denied having contact with any of the letter writers. Meeks also met with former wide receiver Willie Green on Jan. 6, two days before sending the letter, and Green, a Meeks aide said, introduced Vincent to the congressman.

Green, who entered the NFL in the early 1990s like Vincent, did not return e-mail and voice messages.

Meeks took aim at Moran for investigating the matter and going public with his findings, noting that if Vincent is hired, he could dismiss Mary Moran from her NFLPA job. “It seems clear to me that [Rep. Moran’s] intent is to do whatever he can to make sure that Mr. Vincent is not the executive director,” Meeks said.

Moran, meanwhile, said that he and his daughter had done nothing wrong and that his daughter actually went into hiding after she was the subject of menacing comments, including the mention of “a drive-by” shooting, posted by anonymous commenters on the Web site ProFootballTalk.com. The Web site took the comments down at the request of a union official, according to site co-founder Mike Florio, who would not name the union official.

Ari Fleischer, who runs Ari Fleischer Sports Communications and worked on Capitol Hill before he was White House press secretary to President George W. Bush, said what really happened with Vincent, the congressmen and the congressman’s daughter may never be known. “Daughter aside, I am sure the facts will remain murky forever,” Fleischer said.

While he declined to give an opinion on who will win the NFLPA election, Fleischer said, “With everything going on in this country, you would think Congress would have something better to do than put its nose into the private business of sports.”

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