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.”