Drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1978, left tackle Mike Kenn spent his career protecting his quarterback. Off the field, the former University of Michigan standout spent his time protecting players’ rights, for his generation and the next.
As a Player Rep, Kenn unified his team off the field, making the Falcons one of the strongest union teams in the league. His leadership proved very effective and led him to the NFLPA Executive Committee in 1984 and then on to the NFLPA presidency in 1989. Kenn’s seven-year presidency spanned over some of the most crucial years in NFLPA history, but his leadership helped the union make huge strides, including gaining the right of free agency for the players.
When the courts ruled in favor of the owners and their restrictions on free agency, Kenn oversaw the conversion of the NFLPA from a union to a professional association. This ensured the owners’ restrictions would not be exempt from the antitrust laws.
During this transitioning time, Kenn was able to unify the players while continually protecting the strides the NFLPA was making. He garnered support of players league-wide by signing group licensing authorizations and continuing to pay dues. With this solid base, he defended the NFLPA’s growth by blocking attempts from former players, looking to create a new union, which would give antitrust exemption back to the others—making free agency almost impossible. He battled continuous efforts by the NFL owners’ licensing arm, NFL Properties, to sign players away from the NFLPA’s licensing group.
His efforts culminated in 1993, when the courts ruled that the owners’ free agency restrictions violated the antitrust laws. As a result, for the first time in league history NFL players gained unrestricted free agency and a guaranteed percentage of gross revenues—two things the union had tried but failed to gain in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Kenn retired after the 1995 season. In most of his 17 seasons, Mike Kenn allowed the fewest sacks and committed the fewest penalties at his position in the entire league. He was an amazing defender and protector on and off the field. Kenn’s contributions as a leader did far more to help players in subsequent years than they did to help himself. He represents the personal sacrifices that so many NFLPA leaders have made to make the league better for future generations.