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If the NFL labor stalemate continues, and if NFL games are missed, the public is likely to see more and more high-profile players speaking out and saying things like “Let us play” and “This is a lockout, not a strike.”
George Atallah is the man behind the players’ message. A 32-year-old public relations executive, Atallah was a newcomer to the sports industry when he took over the newly created job of assistant executive director, external affairs, at the NFL Players Association in 2009, a few months after DeMaurice Smith was elected executive director.
Smith ran on a campaign of getting players more involved in their then-union (the NFLPA decertified and became a trade association on March 11), and multiple players have told SportsBusiness Journal that they have never been so informed on key issues, including the NFL lockout, as they are now.
Players are speaking out, and more often than not, it is Atallah who is hooking up the interviews with national and local media covering the labor dispute.
“I definitely think that he manages the message that is coming out from the PA,” said Eric Winston, Houston Texans offensive lineman and a member the association’s board of player directors.
NFL players like and respect Atallah, who is about their age, Winston said. But, Winston added, the rapport players feel with Atallah has little to do with age. “It helps when he is willing to pick up the phone and make sure the message gets out,” Winston said. “They do it [interviews with media] because they respect him and he respects them.”
Atallah, who double-majored in English and philosophy at Boston College before getting an MBA from George Washington University, has had a varied and unusual career path. He worked at investment firm Goldman Sachs before working for a nonprofit organization dedicated to global peacebuilding, Seeds of Peace. Prior to his job at the association, he worked as a spokesman for Qorvis, a global public relations and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.
Smith, who was a partner at D.C.-based law firm Patton Boggs before taking the job of NFLPA executive director, had done work with Atallah when he was at Qorvis. Atallah was Smith’s first hire.
Atallah, who speaks for the players on radio, television and Twitter — where he has engaged in tweet fights with NFL public relations staff — can be affable and funny, but he is serious when he needs to be.
“George has brought the NFLPA into a much stronger position in Web presence as well as traditional and social media, continuing to educate the public through these mediums [about] the message of the players and the organization,” said Nolan Harrison III, a former NFL player who is now the NFLPA’s senior director of former player services. “George has been in the forefront in the battle to dispel false information through social media, educating the players on how to get the right information out in the right way.”
Atallah’s job in putting out the players’ message is complicated by the fact that he is outnumbered by not only the league’s larger PR staff, but also the fact that each of the 32 NFL clubs employs public relations professionals who have, in many cases, long-standing relationships with the local and national football writers who are covering the NFL labor story on a regular basis.
“Our little operation — I look at our media operation at the players association as the little engine that could,” Atallah said. “We have to out-think, out-smart and out-hussle Goliath.”
At the same time, Atallah acknowledges that it has been difficult for the PA staff to deal with the overwhelming, and still growing, number of media requests for information on the labor situation. “I know we are not perfect, by the way,” he said. “I know that our media team and myself have been questioned as to [press release] distribution lists and conference calls and who gets invites.”
As far as getting players to tell the association’s story, Atallah makes it clear that he is not telling players what to say but, rather, giving them information so they can say it better themselves. The messages players are delivering are real issues that they have expressed to NFL owners in collective bargaining, he says. “Everything we do is authentic,” he said.
“The messages we have been saying in public, they are not a secret,” Atallah said. “They are the core things we are talking about, and it’s not spinning anything.”
Said Winston of the NFLPA’s messages, “I don’t think it’s George’s voice. He has helped the players shape their voice. He is taking what the players are feeling and what they want and helping them to convey it.”
U.K. athlete representation firm International Sports Management is expanding into the U.S. with the acquisition of Rule 1.02 Marketing, a New Jersey marketing consultancy which is being rebranded as ISM USA and will move to Manhattan offices later this year.
ISM was founded in 1989 by Chubby Chandler, a former golfer on the European Tour. It currently represents close to 50 athletes, including golfers Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy and five of the top 30 golfers in the world. It also managed tournaments, including the British Masters golf tournament, and represents top cricket and soccer players.
ISM has offices in London, New Delhi and Johannesburg.
“We don’t manage any American players, so clearly there is opportunity there, because we have a lot of credibility in golf,” Chandler said. “Managing events and servicing some of [the relationship] for the big corporate [sponsors] should be another big area. And consulting is something [Rule 1.02] does well that we haven’t done at all.”
ISM founder Chandler is flanked by top investor McMahon (right) and Bechtel, ISM USA president.
“Chubby is the energy that has made ISM what it is. But beyond that, he has built a great name and business that could expand to more places and do more things in sports by creating a property business and not one that’s just limited to the U.S.,” McMahon said.
Rule 1.02 was founded by former Integrated Sports International marketer Eric Bechtel in 2001. The firm has worked with clients including 24 Hour Fitness, Ask.com, American Family Insurance, Burger King, Heineken and Bellator Fighting Championships. More recently, it has worked with a number of technology firms as they look to expand within the sports industry, including Chegg.com, Conviva, Demand Media and XOS Digital.
Bechtel becomes president of ISM USA.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who was slated to be an unrestricted free agent after the past season, was one of about 100 elected NFL team representatives who gathered at a resort in Marco Island, Fla., starting March 17 for the NFL Players Association’s annual meeting.
Team player representatives, now known as directors of the players board, were briefed by members of the association’s executive committee who attended the federal mediation sessions in Washington, D.C. Hasselbeck sat down with staff writer Liz Mullen to talk about what he learned at the meeting.
• What did happen in the CBA talks? What is the bottom line?
HASSELBECK: We tried our very hardest to get a deal done. You can’t get a deal done if there is no one there to get a deal done with. I can’t buy a car if the guy who can sell me the car isn’t at the dealership.
• Where were you on the last day of the mediated settlement talks? Did you think there was a chance of an extension, or were you resigned that the NFLPA was going to decertify and the NFL was going to lock out?
HASSELBECK: No, no. I fully expected to get a deal. I called into that last conference call. I was at a charity event in California and stopped everything to get on this conference call.
• What was the mood on the conference call?
HASSELBECK: There was a little bit of anger and frustration, like, “Why don’t we have a deal?” The players that were there [at the mediation] … were like, “Guys, they won’t open their books.” All we have asked for is, Show us financials.
• Was that the big issue on the conference call that day?
HASSELBECK: My takeaway from the call was, “If you need another extension, we need the financials,” and that is what we essentially voted on. We said, “Listen, if they basically blow us off again … we are wasting our time. They are messing with us. We have been asking for two years. Another 24 hours isn’t going to change anything.”
• Why were you hopeful?
HASSELBECK: I was hopeful that we would come to an agreement, either to extend or maybe the owners show up and you get like a John Mara [New York Giants] or a Rooney [Pittsburgh Steelers] or ... someone who can help get a deal done. And they are like, “Guys, we got a good thing going here. Let’s work it out,” and they work it out.
• Some of the players have expressed anger at the letter Commissioner Roger Goodell sent to all players explaining what the league offered to players and urging your “union” to start up negotiations. How do players feel about that?
HASSELBECK: Are the guys angry about that? Oh, I mean, the guys that were in D.C. thought that letter was the biggest joke. The guys that were there … And you know, I know Roger; he’s a good guy. I like Roger; he’s a good person. But you hear his side of the story and you are like … ? (shrugs)
The NFLPA also decertified, or “disclaimed” its collective-bargaining rights, in 1989, only to re-form as a union in 1993 after it won the antitrust lawsuit it had filed against the league, in the case of Reggie White v. the NFL.
Last week the NFL, in its brief filed in the new players’ antitrust case, Tom Brady et al. v. NFL et al., noted that history and said it should be held against the union.
“With the NFLPA, past is prologue,” the NFL states in its brief, which asks U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson to deny the motion to enjoin the lockout that was filed by Brady and nine other players, who are the named plaintiffs representing all NFL players as a class. “Its purported disclaimer today does not mean that it will not collectively bargain in the future.”
Players, however, say the only reason the NFLPA became a union again is because the NFL insisted on it.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, a member of the NFLPA’s board of directors, noted this in talking to reporters at the association’s recent annual meeting in Marco Island, Fla. As part of the settlement of the White case, Smith said players were “actually asked by the owners to re-form as a union so they can operate under the current rules they operate under.”
The players now, with the Brady case, filed a declaration by the late NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw saying the same thing.
“The only reason I agreed to recommend that the NFLPA be converted from a trade association back into a union … is because the owners demanded that as a condition of the Settlement Agreement [of the White case],” said Upshaw in a sworn 1997 declaration.
The NFL, in its brief, called the players’ inclusion of Upshaw’s testimony in this context “both futile and improper.”
At a time when many unions are fighting to keep their collective-bargaining rights, it may be hard for the general public to understand why the NFLPA renounced those rights, but sports leagues are different than other businesses.
Gene Orza, who is retiring as the COO of the MLB Players Association at the end of this month, notes that there is a labor antitrust exemption that allows sports leagues to impose restrictions such as the draft and the salary cap. That exemption, Orza says, “flows from the union” and “it can bestow on the employer its immunity from the antitrust laws.”
The NFLPA decertified to gain access to those laws.
Orza said he, like many labor lawyers, is following the Brady case. “I think the NFL’s position is fanciful,” Orza said. “A union has the right to go out of business.”
Other attorneys are not so sure. “It’s a masterful job of lawyering,” said Bill Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and a current Stanford Law School professor, noting the NFL’s brief, but he added that both sides have done “a masterful job.”
Gould said that the court may grapple with a number of legal issues and that he is not sure how it will come down, but he said that the way the court interprets provisions in the expired CBA having to do with the union decertifying could be a major factor in Nelson’s decision.
Several attorneys who have read the CBA have said that the relevant language could be interpreted in different ways.
“Decertification is the only weapon [the players] have, and restoration of the union is absolutely necessary for the owners,” Gould said. “It’s a role reversal. Usually employers are trying to get rid of unions. In this case, they have to have the union.”
VISION SPORTS SIGNS PHILLIPS: Vision Sports Group of New York, an agency that specializes in representing sports broadcasters, has signed Steve Phillips, the former ESPN broadcaster and, before that, general manager of the New York Mets. Phillips hosts the morning show on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog channel.
Liz Mullen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.
The NFL’s legal contentions to keep the now 2 1/2-week lockout in place have been rejected in the past by courts, the players suing the NFL for antitrust violation and seeking to return to work will argue today in a brief to be filed in Minnesota federal court, a source said last week.
The NFL and its high-powered legal team, led by David Boies and former Solicitor General Paul Clement, forcefully argued last week to the court in their own brief that a Depression-era law disallows federal courts from getting involved in labor disputes. Were they to win on that argument, the lockout would stay and potentially shift significant leverage to the owners in the labor battle, which threatens the 2011 NFL season.
The players’ class counsel declined to comment for this story, but what it is almost certain to argue in its reply brief, according to an attorney, is that the law in question, the Norris-LaGuardia Act, applies only to striking workers. The law, this attorney said, specifically prevents courts from granting employers injunctions seeking to return strikers to work, but the NFL is arguing it should apply to all labor disputes and prevent the players’ request for an injunction to lift the lockout.
“In prior cases, the Supreme Court has addressed Norris as a one-way exemption that protects the unions; it doesn’t protect employers,” said Steve Bradbury, who represented practice squad players in the 1996 Supreme Court case Brown v. NFL. In 1957, he said, the NFL tried to make the same argument in Radovich v. NFL, but the Supreme Court ruled the league could not use Norris-LaGuardia to keep a dispute over the reserve clause out of federal court.
An NFL official disagreed, saying that there is 40 years of case law to support the league’s position and that Radovich involved the scope of the antitrust laws, not an injunction.
The players also are expected to argue they would face irreparable damages from being locked out. To get an injunction, the players must prove irreparable damages, which is non-economic harm that cannot be recovered.
The league and others have questioned exactly what the players’ harm is. Indeed, in his declaration supporting the NFL’s brief last week, Peter Ruocco, league senior vice president of labor relations, declared, “I understand that plaintiffs allege that they will suffer irreparable harm if they are not permitted to work out with their teammates at club facilities during the off-season. But last season plaintiffs [Logan] Mankins and [Vincent] Jackson did not participate in any organized team activities during the off-season, indeed each refused to report to his club until well after the regular season had begun.”
Mankins and Jackson both sat out a portion of the 2010 season in protest of their respective contracts with New England and San Diego.
The NFL is also contending that the court should wait until the National Labor Relations Board decides whether the NFL Players Association decertification is valid. If the group is not allowed to disband as a union, the players could not sue the league for antitrust claims.
Seth Borden, a management labor attorney with McKenna Long & Aldridge, said this is the most important argument the league made. Because the NFLPA decertified and reconstituted once before, the NLRB may have questions about how sincere the decertification is, Borden said.
“When you look at the conduct in its entirety, the fact you have the same people still calling the shots, the same people with hands on the wheel in term of strategy,” the NLRB should take a look at it, Borden predicted. Jeffrey Kessler is both the class counsel and outside counsel to the NFLPA, and two of the named plaintiffs, Drew Brees and Mike Vrabel, were executive committee members of the union.
The players, however, may argue that they cannot be compelled to have a union and that when they reconstituted previously, in 1993, it was because the NFL made it a condition of signing a new labor deal.
It’s unclear what argument the players will offer to counter the NFL’s position that there is an inconsistency in the NFLPA case because if the lockout is lifted, the league would then be forced to use the old rules the players are now charging are violations of antitrust law. The players might simply argue the league should strip away the objectionable aspects of the system, like transition and franchise tags and compensation restraints.
Ruocco in his declaration suggested that would be the players’ argument, but he retorted that if the league were to do that, the NFL would suffer greatly.
“If the court were to issue an injunction prohibiting the NFL from … lock[ing] out the players, the players would undoubtedly argue that the free agency period for the 2011 season should begin promptly,” his declaration states. “There are hundreds of players with contracts that will have expired when the 2011 league year begins; we would expect the NFLPA and players to take the position that all of those players would be free agents, immediately eligible to sign player contracts with any club.
“That would mean, players that teams normally could have put tags on would no longer be bound to their clubs.
“In such circumstances it is only logical that the more favorably situated clubs would be able to sign more and better free agents than less well situated clubs,” Ruocco declared. “[T]his would have a detrimental effect on competitive balance … and would cause irreparable harm to the clubs that lost free agents or the right to bid for free agents on a level playing field.”
Officials with NFL Players, the marketing and licensing arm of the recently decertified NFL Players Association, said last week that the NFL has backed off its comments questioning the unit’s ability to use group player rights to make marketing, advertising and licensing deals.
An attorney for NFL Players wrote a strongly worded letter to the NFL’s senior business counsel, threatening legal action against the league if the league continued to question publicly in the press and privately to sponsors the players subsidiary’s ability to use group player rights in marketing.
The letter was in response to public comments made by Gary Gertzog, NFL senior vice president, to SportsBusiness Journal, as well as conversations that Gertzog was having, according to the lawyer for NFL Players, with sponsors regarding the subject.
“We were disappointed to learn that, despite your assertions to the contrary just last week, you have, in fact, been discussing group player rights with sponsors,” states the March 21 letter, written by Ahmad Nassar, NFL Players vice president, business and legal affairs, and which was obtained by SportsBusiness Journal. “No one at the NFL should be denigrating our undeniable rights — publicly or privately. Doing so exposes you to further liability and immediate legal action.”
An NFL spokesman said the league has been “encouraging NFL sponsors to acquire whatever separate player rights they need to activate their marketing programs.”
“Sponsors need to make their own decisions and satisfy themselves they are securing the rights necessary to conduct certain marketing programs,” the spokesman said.
NFL Players President Keith Gordon, in an e-mail, said that the NFL had responded to the letter to Gertzog and is no longer challenging their rights.
“In response to the letter we sent to the NFL, we received a letter from Gary Gertzog that emphatically stated the NFL has ‘not engaged in efforts to denigrate or attack the validity of your current group player rights,’” Gordon wrote.
The NFLPA had a commercial agreement with the NFL in which NFL sponsors could use the NFLPA’s group player rights in advertising, marketing and licensing deals. That commercial agreement is separate from the collective-bargaining agreement but it expired at the same time as the CBA this month.
The NFLPA decertified as a union and began operating as a trade association on March 11. Each year, the NFLPA gathers signed group licensing agreements from current and future NFL players.