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Players step up as part of NFL union’s overall strategy

The NFL Players Association isn’t saying what’s going to happen or who’ll be talking at its annual Super Bowl news conference this week.

“All I will say is bring your popcorn,” said George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs.

Still, it’s a relevant question. The NFLPA’s previous executive director, Gene Upshaw, did essentially all the talking for the union, but the union’s media strategy has shifted with the election of DeMaurice Smith to the position. Players have been speaking out in greater numbers as the NFLPA negotiates with the league in advance of a March 2011 collective-bargaining agreement expiration.

When Smith ran for the position after Upshaw died in August 2008, he did so in part on a platform that players themselves take ownership in their union. “The media strategy is players first and that is not something we came up with,” Atallah said. “That is something that the players have communicated to us that they want to participate in. So we simply act as facilitators for that.”

Smith, in a brief interview last week, would not comment on media strategy, except to echo the sentiment, “Our strategy is players first.”

Players speaking out include official
Kevin Mawae as well as lower-
ranking members.

Although leagues have hired high-level communications strategists, the NFLPA has not hired an outside media consultant. “We have to try to be lean,” Atallah said.

Players speaking out include those beyond top-level union representatives such as player President Kevin Mawae of the Tennessee Titans. Others voicing their opinions on labor-related issues in recent months include player representatives Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Robbie Gould of the Chicago Bears and executive committee member Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, who drew criticism for writing an op-ed piece in The Washington Post on the potential labor implications of the American Needle v. NFL case that went before the Supreme Court last month.

 “I think we do have a great story to tell,” Mawae said. “I think our players are speaking it. If a guy is a $100 million quarterback or a $300,000-a-year second-year guy, no one wants to give 20 percent of his salary back,” referring to the league’s economic proposal that would reduce the revenue going into the calculation of the salary cap by more than 18 percent.

Atallah, who worked at Qorvis, a Washington, D.C.-based firm specializing in corporate communications, is another new voice for the union in traditional media and on Twitter, where he has had spirited exchanges with NFL PR executives Joe Browne and Greg Aiello (see sidebar).

The league declined a request to discuss its media strategy and would not say whether it had hired an outside communications consultant.

There are good things and bad things about having active players, who, by the very nature of their jobs are in their 20s or early 30s, put out the union’s message, labor and media experts say.

NBA and MLB player agent Arn Tellem, a strong sports union activist, said that players speaking out could help the union’s position, as long as the union is educating them and preparing them. “But the risk there is as more players speak out it opens the door for players who may not be as familiar with the issues to speak out. There is a risk of the message being diluted or players will get off message or say conflicting things that could hurt the message.”

Mawae said that NFL players are more interested in workplace issues than ever before because they know the potential of a lockout is real, and that they have been seeking answers from the union. “I think our players are telling it [the union’s position], and when you listen to them they are on the same page and they are speaking the same language, [although] they might not say it the same way.”

Although NFL players are young, they are college-educated and have been given data and information to back up what they are saying, Mawae said.

National Basketball Players Association spokesman Dan Wasserman said, “It’s crucial to have players involved in the union’s PR strategy. First, it insulates the union from the management claim that the union agenda is lawyer- and/or agent-driven. Second, it creates a dilemma from a league standpoint because there has to be sensitivity towards bashing the product and the athletes are the sports industry’s ultimate asset.”

Sports unions trying to win the PR war must overcome an inherent disadvantage, say labor-side experts. Tellem said the leagues are in a much better position to shape the media message than the players are.

“The media is more dependent on the teams and leagues for stories and they require the good will of teams and leagues to do their jobs,” he said.

NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter told SportsBusiness Journal last summer that he felt the media sided with the league during the 1998-99 NBA lockout. League officials “were always getting their spin out,” Hunter said. “The league is the one with the relationship with the media, not the union. When the league signs a national TV deal, who do they sign with? They don’t sign with the union.”

The NFLPA’s Atallah agrees that the NFL has an inherent advantage in media relations. Not only does the NFL have “an incredible brand,” Atallah said, but the league has “an incredible army of people they employ” to get its message across, including communications staff at the 32 NFL clubs. “I think we know what we’re up against,” he said.

Whether more NFL players speak out, as the labor negotiations intensify is yet to be determined, Atallah said. “It’s up to them. And it’s up to us, as a union, to determine what is the best way of competing with the league’s machine.”

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