NFLPA president uses Ivy League schooling and on-field experience to lead in new role
J.C. Tretter is friendly and charming when talking about himself, but cautious and precise when asked to talk about the labor issues he now oversees in his new role as NFL Players Association president.
“We are still working through what will happen with the season and training camp,” said Tretter, center for the Cleveland Browns. “Our priority is always going to be our players’ health and safety.”
As of press time for this story, the NFL had not developed its COVID-19 safety protocols to start the season.
Asked if NFL players might have to play the season in a quarantined setting or be tested every day, Tretter said, “Going that far ahead, I think, is dangerous. I think you start going down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals.”
Tretter is an Ivy Leaguer, holding a degree in international labor relations from Cornell University. He started his NFL career by snapping the ball to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and now snaps to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Tretter has a demeanor that may best be described as centered. In a half-hour interview with Sports Business Journal, he was self-deprecating while carefully choosing his words about his new responsibilities.
Since his election as president in March, there’s been a lot of curiosity about Tretter, who gained attention when he broke down the pros and cons of the proposed NFL collective-bargaining agreement prior to the razor-close vote of 1,019 to 959. “No agent could have done that,” said one agent of Tretter’s analysis that was posted and widely shared on Twitter.
Tretter grew up in a small town outside of Buffalo, the youngest of two children. His father was a vice president of a trucking company and his mother worked as a school administrator.
Growing up, Tretter wanted to be a professional athlete, like many kids, but he also had a backup plan of going to law school if that didn’t work out. He played quarterback at Akron (N.Y.) High School and played forward on the basketball team. Tretter said he was a better hoops player in those high school days.
He wanted to go to Cornell, where two of his uncles and older sister attended, and he applied for a position on the football team. Cornell doesn’t have scholarships for football, but the school does have football recruiting classes.
He almost didn’t get in to Cornell. “My recruiting coordinator gave me a call,” Tretter recalled. “He said, ‘I’m trying to be fair to you, just letting you know, we are not interested, so we’d advise you to start looking at other schools.’”
He and his family were doing just that, when about a month later Tretter received another call that led to him getting a spot in the football recruiting class and at the school. “I think what happened is my basketball tapes eventually got to the football team and showed a little of my athletic ability.”
Tretter played tight end his first two years of college, but moved over to left tackle as he gained 55 pounds between his sophomore and senior years, going from 250 pounds to 305, and he didn’t lose his athleticism. He was taken in the fourth round in the 2013 NFL draft by the Packers, one of 35 Cornell players to be drafted and the first since Keith Boothe was taken by the Raiders in 2006.
Despite his credentials, Tretter didn’t run for player representative at Green Bay, partially because, he said, “We had an awesome rep in Jordy Nelson.” But also because he felt he wasn’t ready. Tretter suffered two separate, serious leg injuries in Green Bay that put him on injured reserve twice before he was signed as a free agent and then extended at Cleveland.
“Obviously, I was dealing with quite a few injuries in trying to make sure I was going to be a professional football player,” Tretter said. “And as I’ve become more comfortable in my preparation and my understanding in what it takes to get ready to play, and play at a high level, I’ve gotten more comfortable as I have gotten older taking on more roles outside of just being a football player.”
You have to be nominated to become player president, but Tretter said, “I ran,” meaning he let it be known he wanted the job. Since being elected, he has shown he is ready to lead and to fight for players. He’s written a monthly labor column, using one last month to tell members that the NFLPA’s executive committee would re-examine changes to the disability program in the new 10-year CBA. In that column, Tretter wrote, “We have a responsibility to review issues where we have fallen short.”
The new CBA provides for higher benefit payments for some retired players, while lowering some of the payments to disabled members, something that has come under fire by some disabled former NFL players. Asked what he planned to do about it, Tretter again was careful, saying he didn’t know if the union could change the program, but he and other player leaders would look toward doing it.
“You can’t promise things will be changed if you don’t know they can be changed,” he said. “If I had the answer to that already, we would have done it. … But we are going to get together and see if there is one.”