A primer on the NFL’s annual March get-together—who is there and what is getting done this week—plus some key takeaways from a sports law summit
We are in the midst of the 2014 NFL owners meetings, the league’s annual rite of spring during which owners and team personnel surface in a plush resort to discuss issues affecting the league and its teams.
The meetings are an interesting mix of the NFL’s business side, with various reports about the league’s continued prosperity made to the nodding owners, and the football side, with coaches and general managers sizing each other up for potential trades of players and/or draft picks, debating possible revisions of the rules and, of course, generally talking a lot of football.
Aside from the show of relative austerity in the midst of the 2011 lockout—when the sessions were held in New Orleans—the meetings rotate between lush resorts such as this year’s Ritz Carlton in Orlando, the Biltmore in Phoenix and the Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla. My personal favorite spot was Maui, although that was discontinued because of the distance. The venues do not lack for luxury.
Team personnel arrive throughout the weekend, with many turning up early or staying late, especially those from places like Buffalo and Green Bay (as I know well) eager to escape a brutal winter. There are no rules on how small or large a contingent teams are allowed, but there are generally five to seven people per club, not including members of the owner’s family, which can be several.
The meetings open with a speaker on Sunday afternoon. This year’s was Dov Seidman, author of HOW: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything, which set the tone for some of the discussions (in light of the Dolphins’ locker room mess) this week on treatment of peers and respect in the workplace. The speakers can provide valuable insights; I was especially enlightened by Eric Schmidtof Google one year; other speakers have included Bill Clinton and Condeleeza Rice.
The meetings open each year with and NFL Films-produced montage of the sights and sounds of the previous season, filling the room with energy and passion. Commissioner Roger Goodell then welcomes the crowd and acknowledges the two Super Bowl teams before making an opening address. Goodell’s “State of the Game” talk is purposeful and upbeat, yet cognizant of mission to keep the NFL’s lofty position in sports and entertainment. This year he could point to the obvious positives—record television ratings, soaring popularity and the security of labor peace with the NFLPA—but also to challenges ahead and the need for workplace respect and tolerance, the in-stadium presentation and continued brand enhancement.
The meetings then split into two rooms, although covering the same topics. Ownership and chief executives stay in the “big room” while coaches and “working club executives,” as people like me were called, move to secondary rooms. There are different restrictions placed on meetings throughout the three days, with some sessions being “open” to all attendees and others being “one per club,” “two per club,” etc. I was shooed out of the big room by former league vice president Joe Browne a few times.
At some point early in the meetings, teams are given a list of compensatory draft selections, followed by an annual NFL rite of spring: teams’ carping over compensatory draft picks.
Competition Committee roadshow
The Competition Committee, having taken up residence somewhere for the previous week, becomes a traveling road show during the meetings. Led by Rich McKay, the group presents its report at different times to different audiences, shoring up their presentation before making it to the owners. Common areas always ripe for revision include time of games, penalties, officiating points of emphasis, overtime rules, player safety, tampering rules and specific proposals for rule changes.
The proposals for rules changes – often prompted by an egregious call the previous season—are usually accompanied by a presentation by the owner or team official advocating the change. Some are then submitted to vote; other are “tabled” until a later meeting in May, and others that were floated to a negative response and will quietly drift away as if they never happened.
One proposal that I found interesting this year is to raise the game-day active roster from 46 to 49, although only on Thursday night (and a couple Saturday night) games. To me, this makes obvious sense not only for the safety reasons for which it is advanced but in general for competitive, financial and even emotional reasons.
As a team executive in charge of player payroll, I found it continuously frustrating paying healthy players who were not even eligible for the possibility that they may contribute to the team. And as a former agent, I saw the disappointed looks from players who were told two hours before games that they were “down.” After taking it stoically when told by their coaches, I remember some turning to their locker with crestfallen faces, sometimes cursing or even crying. I asked the league several times about the deactivations rule; I was told it was for competitive balance reasons to even out the injury factors with different teams. I found the rationale very unsatisfying: In my 10 years in the league I can count on one hand the number of games for which we had an inactive list that was entirely injured. To me, the proposed increase in the game-day roster should extend to all games; the benefits clearly outweigh the concerns.
The Redskins also proposed doing away with overtime in preseason games. If ever there was a slam dunk proposal, that is it. Nothing good can happen in overtime of a preseason game, only bad (injuries). Scrap it.
Owners, coaches, agents . . . oh my
There are always interesting and sometimes unfriendly encounters between owners at the meetings. As an example, although I found the Bengals’ owner and general manager Mike Brown to be mostly sensible in his offerings, albeit longwinded, there were always several eye-rolls and detectable groans when Brown rose to speak. There were even some tense exchanges between owners like Brown, representing smaller markets, and some of the larger-revenue owners, on splitting the pie and teams’ investment in selling their brand. I recall one especially uncomfortable exchange between Jerry Jones and Wayne Weaver, the former owner of the Jaguars.
As for the coaches, they are heavily scheduled for the meetings between the sessions, a golf event and media breakfasts. The golf event has been the time when owners pass proposals that they know coaches will oppose, such as restrictions on interviews with assistant coaches. Finally, the coaches’ “team picture” is a revealing sign of the times: almost half of the faces are new compared to two years ago.
A few agents always attend, although not many. Drew Rosenhaus has always been a ubiquitous presence at the meetings, notorious for parading his players and (before he was married) attractive female friends to entice team executives to stop by. And business can certainly be done at the meetings: I spent many a breakfast or lunch visiting with agents.
The meetings wrap on Wednesday when, within minutes of the end of the event, the limos pull up to the hotel and the private planes fire up at the airport. The rest of the week may qualify as the four-day NFL “offseason” where, along with a month in the summer, staffs usually have time off, before returning for the grind of draft preparation next week.
Meeting of the Minds
On Friday I hosted a symposium at Villanova Law School (where I direct a Sports Law program) that looked at key topical issues in Sports Law—the Biogenesis scanal in baseball, the Wells Report, NFL concussion litigation and the new lawsuit against the NCAA—and took a deep dive into the intriguing world of agents, finishing with a “Superagent” panel featuring Leigh Steinberg, Tom Condon and Arn Tellem. Here are five highlights from the event. [You can watch the entire symposium here.]
1. David Cornwell, the go-to lawyer for players with team or league issues, was refreshingly candid about clients Alex Rodriguez and Jonathan Martin. Regarding Rodriguez, he admitted to a misguided assault he orchestrated on the Yankees, commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball. “I think that the scorched-earth approach, you know, is kind of swinging for the fences: if you miss, you miss,” said Cornwell. “Looking back on it I think honestly we have to admit that we missed.” The ever-confident Cornwell showed some contriteness and vulnerability in admitting strategic mistakes with Rodriguez.
Cornwell brought back his usual gusto in addressing the Dolphins’ treatment of Martin. He was livid that the Dolphins immediately allowed players in the locker to comment publicly on the matter; most of them supported Incognito and thereby dismissed Martin’s claims. Cornwell described how he went on the offensive with Dawn Aponte, vice president the Dolphins, berating the team’s lack of control over the situation. As for Incognito, Cornwell referred to him as a “weak man.”
Cornwell also described his interaction with Ted Wells regarding the Wells Report’s use of what was going to be published as the “N-word.” Cornwell was adamant that Wells spell that word out and publish it for all to see. Wells listened and used that word (I am not comfortable writing it) several times in the Report.
2. Sol Weiss, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the concussion litigation against the NFL, continued to express optimism that the settlement is on track and headed for final approval despite denial of preliminary approval. He said the financial documents are now with the court’s Special Master, and he expects final approval in a couple of months. As to criticisms he continues to hear regarding the amount of the settlement—$765 million—he was adamant that the money is enough. “When you look at it objectively, it didn’t matter how much money the NFL had, it was, ‘Is there enough money to take care of [people]?”
3. Retired running back Brian Westbrook had some pointed criticism of former Eagles president Joe Banner, whom he felt disrespected him in negotiations. Westbrook illustrated the raw emotions that players experience in contract talks, and one of my mantras in negotiations: “It’s never ‘business, not personal.’ It’s always personal.”
Westbrook also recounted how he once received a $3 million roster bonus on March 27 and then noticed another $3 million payment from the Eagles in his account on March 30. The Eagles had mistakenly double-paid him and scrambled to correct their mistake, though Westbrook was none too eager to help them fix it.
4. Tom Condon relayed the fascinating and humorous story of Peyton Manning’s free agency. With 12 teams interested, Condon licked his chops, anticipating a certain record-breaking deal. Manning, however, was in charge; he would make four visits and then decide. Now down to four instead of twelve teams, Condon was disappointed but still confident in a megadeal. Manning, however, said he wanted to pick the team first, before any negotiations would ensue, meaning Condon was now down to one team to negotiate with. And when Manning picked Denver, he simply asked Condon:
“What does Tom Brady make?”
“$18 million a year.”
“Then I don’t want to make a penny more than that.”
Condon’s visions of a $25 million a year deal were dashed, although the Broncos’ opening offer was $19.4 million a year. Condon phoned to tell Manning, who was incensed:
“I told you I didn’t want to make more than Brady!”
Condon apologized, hung up and called Manning’s wife, who responded, “I’ll take care of it,” and coaxed Manning to accept the Broncos’ offer.
Condon was also revealing in admitting that, in his 35 years as a player and agent, the NFLPA has never been able to make serious gains at the bargaining table like the MLBPA has, and admitted to the losses in the 2011 CBA negotiations.
5. The most powerful moment of the symposium came from longtime agent Arn Tellemm, who discussed NBA client Jason Collins. Tellem detailed the events leading to the Sports Illustrated cover story, written with Tellem’s childhood friend Franz Lidz, and then described Jason reading what he had written about his homosexuality to his parents. In recounting that moment, Tellem broke down and was brought to tears, as were many in the audience.
After composing himself, Tellem discussed the long wait Collins had before signing with the Nets earlier this month. In sharing his call to Collins to tell him the Nets would be signing him, Tellem once again broke down. It was a touching moment and showed Tellem’s enormous personal investment in Collins, his life and his family. And there was not a dry eye in the auditorium.
I invite everyone to watch in full here.
The translation for the week comes from Eagles GM Howie Roseman regarding the pending divorce with wide receiver DeSean Jackson: “DeSean is under contract, and that is all there is to report.”
Brandtslation: “No good trade offers yet.”