Friday, September 30, 2011

Benson, Pryor & Retired Players - NFLPA Getting Heat from All Angles

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) must feel like it's getting heat from a whole bunch of angles - from a current player, from a current player fresh out of college and from retired players.

Let's break it down.

(a) Cedric Benson

On July 17, 2011, Cedric Benson was arrested in Austin, Texas on a misdemeanor charge of assault causing bodily injury after punching a former roommate in the face. He was sentenced to 20 days in jail and ordered to pay a $4,000 fine. Benson was released from jail on September 3, after serving 5 days.

The NFL suspended Benson 3 games for this incident saying he violated the league's Personal Conduct Policy. Under the Policy, the league can punish a player if he engages in conduct that is detrimental to the league.

For Benson, this wasn't his first offence. On June 29, 2010, Benson was arrested for assault after reportedly punching a bartender in the face.

Benson punched the former roommate during the NFL lockout. All along the NFL has said that the Policy would apply during the lockout, while players were of the view that the Policy didn't apply during the lockout.

The NFL reasoned that even though the players were locked out, they remained employees and the Policy covers the conduct of employees. On the flip side, the players argued that the lockout deprived them of their employment benefits. Under the circumstances, how could they still be accountable to discharge their employment obligations? (Read Offside's story on the application of the Policy during the lockout here).

There was no clear cut answer to whether the Policy from a legal standpoint could apply. To erase that doubt, during CBA talks, the NFL and the NFLPA (or technically the players) agreed that 8 players that had engaged in misconduct during the lockout and who were repeat offenders could be disciplined under the Policy. The rest of the players that had been involved in incidents during the lockout would walk (about 25 players).

There is a letter signed by NFL lawyer Jeff Pash and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith setting this out. Here's an excerpt:
"The Commissioner has determined that the following players are repeat offenders subject to discipline for conduct during the Period: Cedric Benson, Kenny Britt, Clark Haggans, Albert Haynesworth, Johhny Jolly, Adam Jones, Aqib Talib, and Brandon Underwood."
So when Benson was suspended for 3 games, his lawyer got to work. Benson did 2 things. First, he filed an appeal with the NFL challenging the suspension. He argued that he was a free agent at the time and therefore had no employment relationship with the league.

The second thing he did was go after his own Union. He filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the NFLPA. Specifically, he claimed that since the NFLPA wasn't a Union after decertifying during the lockout it couldn't make an agreement with the NFL regarding which players who could be disciplined.

Benson also feels like he was thrown under the bus by his own Union, and that the Union, which should represent his own best interests, didn't have his back.

"You would think they're here to support you and have your back - that's what a union does. I guess in my case, it's different" Benson said.

And don't forget - 2 other players on that list of 8 (Britt and Talib) were charged with far more serious crimes than Benson. Still, the NFL did not suspend them ( Read Offside story, "Britt & Talib Avoid Suspensions; Will Any NFL Players Be Suspended For Lockout Incidents?".

The NFLPA has said that it never abandoned the right to challenge any discipline imposed on the 8 players. However, for Benson, this distinction doesn't seem to cut it. He's not happy that from his perspective he was served up as a sacrificial lamb.

In his eyes, his own Union let him down.

(b) Terrelle Pryor

While a member of the  Ohio State Buckeyes, Pryor and other players traded memorabilia for cash and discounted tattoos. Pryor was suspended for 5 games by the NCAA for these violations.

After the NCAA handed down its 5 game suspension, in the view of the NFL, Pryor manipulated the draft system to get tossed off the team with a view to making himself eligible for the NFL's Supplemental Draft. Among other things, Pryor hired an agent and refused to cooperate with the NCAA.

So the NFL felt that Pryor manipulated the draft system to avoid punishment by the NCAA.

The NFL let him enter the draft but only after he agreed to a 5 game suspension.

The NFL's legal basis to suspend Pryor was that his draft manipulation was contrary to the NFL's Constitution. However, to some it looked like Pryor was being suspended by the NFL for something he did while he was not an employee of the NFL.

All that being said, the NFLPA is said to have agreed to the punishment and wasn't too enthusiastic about an appeal, and jumped on board the appeal a bit late.

Some players don't like how this looks. In their view Pryor was disciplined by the NFL for stuff he did when he wasn't employed by the NFL. For the players, that sets a bad precedent, and for that reason that NFLPA should have fought this from the outset. Moreover, some players believe the Union should never have agreed to the suspension in the first place.

(c) Retired Players Sue Union

A group of retired players have sued the NFLPA alleging that it did not have the authority to negotiate a deal for the retired players during the CBA negotiations. The lawsuit alleges that when the NFLPA decertified as a Union it lost the right to negotiate retirees' benefits in the new CBA. Basically, retired players feel shortchanged by the deal, and believe that they were sacrificed to gain a better deal for current players.

Particularly in the case of Pryor and Benson, there is a perception among some players that they were sacrificed by the NFLPA and that the Union did not exercise its obligation to protect the best interests of the players.

In order for a union to be able to perform effectively, it must have the confidence and trust of its employees. These two cases may have shaken that trust somewhat, particularly given the perceived lack of transparency. The NFLPA may need to make some adjustments to ensure that the majority of its players are comfortable with the Union's leadership.

If adjustments are not made, I would be concerned about player solidarity moving forward.

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