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Voices from both sides take labor issues to Twitter

Rhetoric leading up to the expiration of a collective-bargaining agreement is normal, but this edition of the NFL-NFLPA public relations battle is already shaping up to be different from anything sports has seen before. There is noticeably more public posturing coming from both sides and some of the volume is coming from voices that haven’t been as audible before. 

In addition, Twitter has provided a powerful new venue for the sabre-rattling. George Atallah, NFLPA assistant executive director (@GAtallah), has exchanged Twitter barbs more than once with longtime NFL PR executive Joe Browne (@NFLonTheHill), as well as with Greg Aiello, NFL senior vice president of communications (@gregaiello), who appears to be taking a substantial role in the NFL’s labor PR efforts.

Topics being Tweeted have not solely focused on the economics discussed at the bargaining table. Other issues that have emerged include whether retired players are being pitted against active players and whether NFLPA executive committee member Drew Brees should have penned an op-ed piece for The Washington Post on the potential labor impact of the American Needle v. the NFL case before the Supreme Court.

Aiello has been actively re-tweeting — from New York Giants co-owner John Mara’s comments that he is “frustrated” by the lack of progress in labor talks to a comment by a retired players group urging the union to get more money to former players now.

Reconstruction shows the Browne-Atallah
Twitter exchange after Brees’ op-ed.

But some of the most direct barbs toward the NFLPA have come from longtime NFL public affairs chief Browne, who has, among other things, questioned why the NFLPA members have spent so much time on Capitol Hill and why union lawyers would allow Brees to open himself up to potential criticism before the playoffs.

In early January, Browne posted three tweets about it, including one that said, “Error-prone and misinformed piece with Drew’s by-line should not taint great season he had on field. Wish him only the best next Sat.”

The NFLPA responded, with Atallah posting a tweet that said, in part, “stay classy Joe Browne.”

Asked about it last week, Atallah still questions the NFL’s motive.

“Any time a league official tries to question a player’s integrity, it comes as a shock, because a player like Drew Brees is precisely the type of person and player the league uses to generate revenue,” Atallah said.

Players also noticed Browne’s take on Brees’ op-ed, as well as some of negative comments from media outlets, including a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that sarcastically described him as “renowned antitrust expert Drew Brees.” Aiello applauded that piece, tweeting, “Finally some common sense applied 2 American Needle hysteria by WSJ.”

NFLPA President Kevin Mawae told SportsBusiness Journal last week: “When Drew spoke out on behalf of 1,900 players like he was elected to do, I think he was doing the right thing, and for any part of the media to come down on him because he is taking a stand, I think is ignorant, and I think is wrong.”

Browne insists he wasn’t questioning Brees integrity, saying only, in an e-mail, “I used exactly 420 characters in three tweets to say Drew is good guy, wish him luck against the Cards and question why the union lawyers would distract him by injecting him into a Supreme Court case regarding intellectual property a week before the then-biggest game of his career. I heard from several players and retired players who agreed with me. The union lawyers obviously don’t.”

Browne has also posted at least one Tweet about the amount of time players have spent lobbying members of Congress on Capitol Hill, writing on July 15, 2009, “Hill staffers puzzled why NFLPA leaders R back today to complain to Members re NFL’s antitrust exemption.”

Mawae said he is aware of Browne’s comments. “His comment was we need to spend more time negotiating and less time on the Capitol Hill,” Mawae said. “And last time I was in there negotiating, Joe Browne wasn’t.”

No one would speculate as to whether the free-wheeling use of Twitter will continue to be an open forum for the labor talks, but any interested labor observer might want to start following some of these people now, a year and a half before the first regular-season game could be lost to a potential labor stoppage.

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