Will NFL's players union switch generals heading into potential CBA battle in 2021?

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Before NFL players kick off a long-term negotiating attack on the league’s franchise tag, drug policy and discipline process, they’ll first have to decide whether they want to open a democratic challenge for the reins of their union. And part of that answer might begin unfolding this week in Dallas.

Those core issues for the NFL Players Association are expected to be part of a hopeful platform of civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri, who is trying to challenge DeMaurice Smith’s standing as executive director of the NFPLA. But first, Mehri has to attempt to get his platform off the ground.

 

NFL players could rubber stamp Smith’s standing as the head of the NFLPA in October, essentially voting to eliminate any elections the following March, when his current three-year term expires. Conversely, players could vote to allow Smith to be challenged in a March election, opening the door for Mehri (and potentially others) to present opposing platforms and ideas to the current status quo.

Cyrus Mehri is mounting a challenge to lead the NFL’s players union. (Getty Images)

Given what’s at stake for the relationship of players and the NFL franchises that employ them, this could be a significant moment that helps determine if there will be NFL football in September 2021. As it stands, the collective-bargaining agreement between the league and the players expires following the 2020 season.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes with players and their union. In the parlance of battle, the NFLPA is in the midst of an arms buildup, working toward amassing a labor war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars. The goal, according to a handful of players who have spoken to Yahoo Sports, is banking as much as $500 million to $600 million in reserves. That money would then be used to fund players during a strike – with an eye toward erasing regular-season games.

Among players, it’s being billed as a financial foxhole of sorts, allowing them to hunker down and still draw financial assistance during the nasty labor war they see coming in 2021. Some stars who expect to be around in 2021 told Yahoo Sports they are expecting to see regular-season games lost in the next labor fight.

Here’s why: Some want the franchise tag removed. Permanently. Some want the entire NFL disciplinary process revamped and taken out of commissioner Roger Goodell’s hands. Some want the NFL to take a more progressive approach to the use of medicinal marijuana. Some simply want more money and more guarantees in contracts. And some, well, they want all of that and more.

“We will structure our demands and outlast them,” one star player told Yahoo Sports of the watershed labor battle he expects with the NFL in 2021. “We have a plan and our players’ best interests at heart.”

All of that – the money, the plans, the seemingly hardened stance – makes the next vote for the head of the players union fairly important. Whoever gets the nod as the next executive director is expected to lead the NFLPA through a potential 2021 labor battle.

DeMaurice Smith could clinch another three-year term as chief of the NFLPA. (AP)

That’s why Mehri is in Dallas this week, hoping to meet with Dallas Cowboys players in a team-by-team effort to convince players to open up elections and weigh another contender against Smith. Mehri has been both familiar and respected in NFL circles since 2002, when he stood as one of the driving forces behind the league’s “Rooney Rule,” which mandates minority interviews for head coaching and senior operations vacancies. He’s pitching to players the theme of “choice” – specifically, giving Mehri the opportunity to run against Smith, and offer other ideas and approaches in the coming years.

“The stakes are just too high for there not to be an election for the executive director of the player’s union,” Mehri said of the process. “NFL players compete everyday and the executive director of the NFLPA should be ready, willing and able to compete for his job once every three years. What we’re fighting for here is to protect voices and choices for the players.”

Whether Mehri gets that chance depends on the players, who could simply vote to keep Smith in October. One player representative told Yahoo Sports this week that he didn’t have an issue with Smith, but also preferred to have options, citing the need to retain democratic debate when it comes to the union’s executive director position.

“I don’t think De [Smith] should be completely unopposed,” the player said. “I think for the most part players are happy with the job he’s done, but I think it’s good to hear other viewpoints, too. I don’t want 10 guys or whatever throwing their names up [for the position], and I don’t want to waste a bunch of time. But I think it’s fair and probably smarter to have a few qualified candidates pitching their own ideas and then comparing them alongside what De is trying to accomplish. … We all know this is about the long-term health of our union – for us and for guys playing 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

The initial vote on whether to summarily retain Smith and cancel any open election is scheduled for Oct. 15.

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