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Volume 21 No. 26

Labor and Agents

NFL agent Jack Mills has had a No. 1 draft pick before — in fact, he’s had two. They just happened to be 34 and 37 years ago.

Celebrating his 51st year in the business, Mills last represented the first pick in the NFL draft in 1984, when the Patriots took wide receiver Irving Fryar No. 1. He also represented running back George Rogers, who was taken No. 1 by the Saints in 1981.

 

But Mills, who at age 80 looks more like he’s 60, didn’t think he’d represent a No. 1 pick again, at least not until he and his son Tom signed Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield earlier this year. Mayfield was taken No. 1 by the Cleveland Browns last month.

 

“No, I did not,” Mills said when asked if, prior to signing Mayfield, he thought he’d represent the first player taken again in his lifetime. “We were lucky in a lot of respects.”

 

Initially, Mayfield was not sold on having a playing-contract agent. Still, his family was approached by every major agency in the country, with some agents promising that they could get him drafted No. 1 overall, according to his father, James. Such guarantees didn’t go over well with the Mayfields.

 

Asked last week if he was happy he ended up hiring an agent, Mayfield in an email wrote, “Yes. With the caveat that I am happy with THE agent(s) I hired, not just an agent in general. Me/my family were approached by everyone, and the only ones that were a best-fit for me were the Mills.”

 

Longtime NFL agent Jack Mills, No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield and Mills’ son, Tom
Photo: courtesy of tom mills

The biggest thing the Mills did for Mayfield was help determine his travel, workouts and appointments with teams. That was a little tricky considering Mayfield didn’t have enough time to meet with every team that wanted to sit down with him.

 

“In terms of navigating the weeks and months leading up to the draft, they took an approach that I liked,” Mayfield wrote. “We didn’t try to please every team out there — all it took was one to buy in to me and Tom/Jack preached that since day one. The results speak for themselves.”

 

The Mills turned down some teams, Tom Mills said. They agreed to send Mayfield on seven franchise trips — to the Browns, New York Jets, New York Giants, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals.

 

“There were so many teams that wanted to talk with him, wanted to work him out, wanted to interview him and bring him into the facility,” Tom Mills said. “We decided we wanted to streamline it [and] focus on teams that we knew needed a guy and had the draft capital to actually get him.”

 

This is the first No. 1 pick for Tom Mills, who became an NFL Players Association-certified agent in 1996.

 

When Tom was in middle school and high school in the 1980s, the NFL draft was always on a Tuesday. In those days, he was allowed to take a day off from school when his father was representing players who had a chance of being taken in the first round.

 

There was one year, 1984, when Jack represented the top-two overall picks: Fryar and offensive lineman Dean Steinkuhler, who was taken second that year by the Houston Oilers. Mills has represented two hall of famers during his career: offensive lineman Randall McDaniel, who was picked No. 19 overall in 1988, and Eric Dickerson, selected No. 2 in 1983.

 

That 1983 draft still holds the record for the most quarterbacks taken in the first round with six, including hall of famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Jack Mills didn’t represent a quarterback in the ’83 draft, but he notes that at the time, there wasn’t the hype around the quarterbacks that there was this year. Mayfield was one of five QBs taken in this year’s first round.

 

“Elway was clearly rated as the best and it wasn’t like this year, where four were rated highly and in differing orders and all four went in the top 10,” Mills said.

 

Gil Brandt, former head of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys who now advises the NFL on who to invite to the draft, thinks there’s one, maybe two, quarterbacks in this year’s draft who are future hall of famers. Brandt wouldn’t name them, but he had plenty to say about Jack Mills.

 

“I have known Jack forever,” Brandt said. “Jack Mills is a solid, solid, solid individual. … Everybody likes the guy.”

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.

Leslie Smith has been trying to get UFC fighters to sign authorization cards to organize a union.
Photo: Getty Images

Fighter Leslie Smith filing a charge with the National Labor Relations Board last week against the UFC may settle a much larger question: Whether mixed martial arts fighters can unionize now or in the future.

 

That’s because only employees can unionize, and if the NLRB decides to hear Smith’s case, that would classify her — and all UFC fighters — as an employee in the NLRB’s eyes.

 

For years, the UFC has defined Smith, as well as the roughly 600 fighters it has under contract, as independent contractors. But only employees can seek relief from the NLRB. In her charge last week, Smith was described as “a statutory employee,” which may force the NLRB to determine the correct definition.

 

“The board would have to preliminarily determine whether she is an employee or an independent contractor,” said Bill Gould, former chairman of the NLRB who is now a Stanford Law School professor. “Because they don’t have jurisdiction — they can’t involve themselves in anything like this — unless they have jurisdiction. They don’t have jurisdiction over independent contractors.”

 

Smith is alleging that the UFC violated federal law protecting employees who engage in union activity when it terminated her contract on April 20. Smith has been the vocal president of Project Spearhead, a group that has been collecting union authorization cards from UFC fighters, and the charge alleges that the UFC retaliated against her for those efforts.

 

The board would have to preliminarily determine whether she is an employee..
Bill Gould
Former NLRB Chairman

Ironically, the immediate goal of Project Spearhead has not been to unionize, but simply to collect enough union authorization cards to force the NLRB to make the decision of whether the fighters are employees and can unionize. In order to gain “standing” in front of the NLRB, Project Spearhead needed to collect cards from about 30 percent of the membership — or roughly 200 fighters.

 

That effort might not be needed now.

 

The UFC declined to comment for this story.

 

“The UFC, by its actions against Leslie, has forced the issue of independent contractor versus employee to the forefront and to be decided by the NLRB much faster than it would have been if they had just left Leslie Smith alone and let her continue to collect authorization cards,” said Lucas Middlebrook, a labor attorney who is representing Smith in the NLRB action, as well as Project Spearhead.

  

The NLRB will look at a host of factors to determine the answer, including the extent to which the employer has control over the way the work is done and how the employee conducts himself or herself, Gould said. Another factor is the extent to which the employee is conducting the business of the employer.

 

“If you have a plumber come to your house, for instance, they are an independent contractor because they are doing something you are not doing,” Gould said. “You are living in the house.”

 

Conversely, a potential example in Smith’s favor could be if the UFC says it’s in the business of fighting and Smith is a fighter. 

  

Either the entire NLRB board would make the determination or the general counsel could make the decision, Gould said.

 

There have been at least two other efforts to unionize UFC fighters that have failed over the years, for various reasons.

 

Although the UFC would not comment, there may be a question as to whether Smith was actually fired. She was on the last fight of her UFC contract when her opponent, Aspen Ladd, did not make the 135-pound weight limit. Smith declined the fight, as was her right under New Jersey law, where the fight was to take place. The UFC paid Smith both the win and show money — $62,000 — so one could argue her contract was fulfilled.

 

But Middlebrook noted that the UFC would not offer her another fight or renew her contract, even though she had won her last two fights and was ranked No. 9 in the UFC rankings for the women’s bantamweight division.