The grieving is over. Now it’s time for the NFL Players Association to get back to work. The union needs a leader, someone to step into the large footprints left behind by former leader Gene Upshaw.
Last week, the union revealed that it has formed a search committee, comprised mostly of current players. It also said the union had asked membership for permission to hire a firm to gather candidates for the position of executive director, left vacant by Upshaw’s sudden death last month.
Let me help them out.
The best man to lead the union is currently lying in a hospital bed – at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Reggie Williams, the former NFL linebacker/city councilman/corporate executive, doesn’t live there, but it would be easy to think he does. He’s had nine surgeries in New York since April on his ornery right leg, 20 since he retired in 1989 as one of the most popular Cincinnati Bengals ever.
Williams wanted to make it clear that he is not campaigning for the position, for whatever negative connotation that word might have. But several ex-players have reached out to him, encouraging him to consider it and on Saturday he said: “If asked, I will serve.”
Williams should be atop the soon-to-be-hired search firm’s short list of candidates. Like Upshaw, he is a former player who’s been there. He played 14 seasons and reached two Super Bowls. More than that experience, though, Williams stands on what he’s done off the field as his credentials for assuming leadership of the union. “It’s hard to say what I will do [as NFLPA head] when I have a body of work that shows what I’m capable of doing,” he said.
That body began to take shape before Williams retired from the game when he became a Cincinnati city councilman in 1987 and helped pass legislation forcing the city to divest itself of stocks in companies that do business in South Africa. South African cleric and activist Desmond Tutu declared the move “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in the effort against apartheid and later visited “Zinzinnati” and Williams to personally express his gratitude.
Later, after a stint as VP/GM of the New Jersey Knights of the World League of American Football (which folded in 1993), he created the NFL’s first Youth Education Town in 1993 in Pasadena, Calif. The program, which has since expanded to 12 centers, is designed to help youth in at-risk neighborhoods in Super Bowl cities.
In Pasadena, Williams met then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who asked the former player to join him in exploring sports opportunities. As VP for sports attractions, Williams created and managed Disney’s Wide World of Sports, a facility that has become a major venue for pro sports teams.
Last November, Williams “retired” from the position in order to focus on his rehabilitation.
Williams’ wrenching surgical saga has been well-chronicled. After getting experimental surgery on his knee (we now know it as microfracture surgery) in order to extend his career and try for a Super Bowl ring, he has lived a life of pain, surgeries, more pain, more surgeries (four knee replacement procedures), more pain … you get the idea. Through it all, Williams has not lost two things: 1) his sense of humor, 2) his right leg.
“That’s the first thing I looked at when I woke up,” Williams said. “I moved my toes, and said, ‘Yep those are my toes.’ ”
A leadership role in the NFLPA would, figuratively at the very least, put him back on his toes.
Williams said he would continue to pursue the union’s current strategy that has led to the players receiving 60 percent of the league’s gross revenues.
“I completely support the revenue sharing strategies that are part of the collective bargaining agreement, and they should continue,” he said. “Obviously the owners are pushing back due to their increasing costs, particularly when they invest in new stadiums. But they don’t put on the table that when they spend money on their own stadiums, it increases the value of their franchises and that appreciation does not flow down to the players.”
And fresh from his experience at Disney, a branding leader in corporate America, Williams believes he has strategies that can help the players enhance their image and their wallets. “I really believe players are significantly undervaluing their brand potential,” he said.
Yet for all his business acumen, I’ve ignored one of Williams’ most obvious qualifications. With the NFLPA’s treatment of former players, particularly those with health issues, standing as the biggest dent in Upshaw’s legacy, who better to heal the divide between the league’s current players and the men upon whose shoulders (and knees, hips, etc.) they stand than the man sitting in a New York hospital?
“There are a lot of cracks in the bridge between former players and the union – especially on the issues of health and health benefits,” said Isaac Curtis, a former teammate of Williams. “That’s definitely one of the things I’d like to see changed. I’d like to see the two groups come together, and Reggie could make that happen. And not in a way that would compromise what the current players gained under Gene. But the current players have to look long range. One day they’re going to look exactly like us.”
Williams believes the union must embrace the NFL’s former players as “members” more so than in the past. “You wouldn’t want your favorite uncle to have a lot of problems and say, ‘Well, that was his time. This is my time.’ That’s not a very strong family. I think you are an NFL player for life, not just as long as you are a dues-paying member. It’s not enough to say that the benefits you are getting are better than they used to be. Well, they still aren’t good enough. We all need to live in the now.”
Coming from the private sector, Williams is sure he could rally new, unique public/private partnerships to support the union and league’s efforts to benefit former players.
“Not only is it realistic but it would be something people would be very happy to do on many levels,” said Williams’ physician, Dr. Steve O’Brien, who worked with the Giants for 14 years. “We could get sponsorship and hospitals to support the effort, and I’d be more than happy to spearhead this with Reggie. Up to now, the leadership hadn’t been in place to walk the talk.”
Williams’ passion for the NFL has not wavered. That was clear throughout our chat. Yet he knows there is a moment from his past that would almost certainly give the search committee pause. In 1987, he crossed the picket line when the union went on strike in an effort to force a better agreement.
He knows his action remains a thorn for union leadership, yet he’s comforted by the fact that he and Upshaw had worked out their differences long ago. “We came to a mutual understanding,” he said.
One indication that Upshaw had reconciled with Williams is that the two men discussed creating an enclave for former players at Disney’s planned community in Celebration, Fla. It would have been built around a hospital, which would have benefited the players’ needs. And the developer even offered to make discounts available to former NFL players. “Wide World of Sports also had opportunity to offer players jobs or tremendous volunteer opportunities for kids … ,” Williams said. “The community never came to fruition, of course.
“Think about all of the issues that erupted related to care of retired players since then.”
Issues that might never have arisen to the extent they did.
Ultimately, today’s union leadership has an opportunity to rectify its missteps regarding former players yet still continue to pursue gains on behalf of current players. But only if it dismisses what may be a deal-breaker in the minds of some stalwarts – Williams crossing the picket line – and makes the kind of bold move that hiring Upshaw was years ago.
Photos courtesy of AP (top) and Getty (bottom)