A person I hold in high regard told me not to get so caught up on moving forward that I forget the accomplishments of the past. With that in mind, now that I have reached the five year mark at this great organization, I went through the exercise of documenting some highlights of my first five years as an employee of the NFL Players Association. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed living it.
"Night gathers, and now my watch begins"
When I retired from professional football in the spring of 2001, I would have never thought I would be sitting in this chair as Senior Director of the NFL Players Association Former Player Services Department. Yes I served as a team Player Representative and on the Executive Committee during my ten year NFL career, but that life was behind me and I was off to build my professional resume in the business world outside of football. After ten years of working to achieve success as an entrepreneur and as a vice president in the financial services industry , but still volunteering as a local president of the NFLPA former players chapter and on the board of directors, in 2010 I was asked to take this position and it has been a fast, furious and fulfilling journey to date.
Some time after successfully lobbying for the former player board of directors leadership to obtain two seats on the current players Executive Committee during the NFLPA Player Representative meetings in March 2010, I was asked if I would take a full time position at the NFLPA in the Former Player Services Department. I started in August 2010 in the thick of the CBA fight with the NFL, and still working to complete my MBA (I know, nuts right!?). The world of former players was fractured with the some disgruntled former players asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to change the NFL Alumni from a charitable organization into a labor group funded by the NFL to fight against the NFLPA. Other former players formed other small splinter groups, all taking aim at the NFLPA. I have to say I was not totally shocked at this development since NFL vs NFLPA labor history has shown the NFL Alumni organization has always aligned themselves against the NFLPA in CBA negotiations. Nevertheless I started with an olive branch because the past does not always predict the future. Unfortunately, in this situation, I was wrong. What I was surprised by was the willingness of these former players to be duped by the NFL and challenge the NFLPA on negotiation points where former players were concerned creating a divisive environment which only benefited the NFL. Unbelievably the group went to the news media and fellow former players asking us to take a deal that was significantly less than the deal we were pursuing. The offer of $100 million paled in comparison to the $620 million that we eventually won for pre 1993 players.
What is now called the Legacy Fund sets aside two thirds of the total $900 million won in the 2011 CBA agreement exclusively for the pre 1993 players. Currently 4,800 vested former players and their survivors or widows will benefit from the fund, 2,500 are in pay status today. The Legacy Fund basically raised the pensions for pre 1993 vested former players. The longer you played the higher your payout would be. This benefit also created a minimum floor of $600 per month for these player’s pension benefit credit. As an example, this means that those players who’s pension credits per month were $250 would now receive no less than $600. The Legacy Fund also applies to players who took their pensions early and did not penalize them for that. The Legacy Fund also covered players who played some of their NFL career post 1993, but only for the years played before 1993. These last two points were hotly debated by some former players who wanted to exclude those players in the examples above which would result in more money for themselves. The Legacy Fund pays the pre 1975 players an additional $124 per month, and post 1975 to 1993 players an additional $108 per month. With this increase there are many former players that are making more from their pensions today than the salary they were paid as a player! This 2011 CBA deal for former players was so unprecedented that executives from the Alliance for Retired Americans praised the deal saying:
"The players' union has achieved an amazing accomplishment for its retirees, upon whose legacy the organization continues to build," ARA Executive Director Edward F. Coyle said on behalf of its 4 million members.
"The NFLPA should be applauded for its commitment to its membership," ARA President Barbara Easterling wrote in the letter.
Another part of the $900 million in retirement benefits, albeit a smaller amount ($22 million per year with a five percent increase every year), went to the creation of the Trust. Unlike the $620 million Legacy Benefit the Trust does not put money directly into the pockets of former players. The Trust provides transition programming and assistance for former players who have at least two credited seasons. The Trust was an entity we created after more than two years of studying the former player landscape. We brought in the best design group in the country,IDEO, to help us research and develop the design and implementation of the Trust so that it would be something that would not only serve the needs of the former players but also, more importantly something that the former players would engage in. The Trust provides transition services in six pillars; career, education, lifestyle, brain and body, financial and personal interaction. The Trust employs former player captains who perform player outreach and produce events around the country to engage and educate our former players. When we hired executive director Bahati VanPelt to head the trust we knew he would do an outstanding job and as the Trust heads into the end of its second year we have been proven right. Over 1,500 players have enrolled in the Trust with more everyday as word spreads about this amazing benefit and the strong team of program managers and administrators that makes it run. I was proud to be the core team leader here at the NFLPA assigned to work with IDEO in the planning phase of the Trust creation. During the time working with members of the IDEO team I developed new skills which I employ even today in the service of former players.
The 2011 CBA related former player benefit improvements; the former player life improvement plan, increases in line of duty disability, total and permanent disability and the 88 Plan, the new neuro cognitive benefit, and others all serve to assist former players in life after football.
In August 2014 the NFLPA increased the pensions for 1,722 former players with credited seasons from 1993 to 1996. We wanted to do this to eliminate the tranche that was created by the Legacy benefit increasing the pension credits for players pre 1993 to a level above the players from 1993 to 1996. This brought those players monthly pension credit amount up to the $363 per month level of those that played before them.
Inside of my department at the NFLPA sits the Professional Athletes Foundationwhich manages the Players Assistance Trust. I am so proud to see the Executive Director Andre Collins and his team grow and perform outstandingly in service of former players in need. In 2014 the PAF awarded $2 million dollars to players in need who qualified. They help all former players no matter if they played zero downs or achieved a twenty year career. The wait time from a fully completed application to a grant award is now at 16.1 days, down from the 45 days it would take five years ago! Andre has also negotiated deals with Ear Q to provide hearing assistance, University of Michigan Depression Center, and the Living Heart Foundation HOPE study for weight loss to better serve former players.
Additionally in my department we have negotiated deals to assist players who were not fortunate enough to reach vesting years with companies like Athlife for career services, free membership at the YMCA (not your father’s YMCA) and Mayo Clinic for player health screenings. We developed a relationship withSCORE to provide free expert business mentors to our former players. We also negotiated a deal with the Building Trades to provide employment opportunities for our former players which is a relationship the Trust is now managing.
When I first started in the department, communication and outreach were the big problems. We created the NFLPA Former Players Newsletter, the first of its kind at that point, which has had a successful five year run and now is distributed to agents and financial advisors to better inform their former player clients of the services and news from the NFLPA. We created a monthly newsletter called “The Leader” strictly for our chapter leaders and board members that educates the leadership and provides information important to them. We started the successful text campaign NFLPA Tips, which provides weekly inspiration and actionable information from time to time. We instituted a player outreach campaign to reach out and find out how our players and their families were doing and update contact information so that we can reach them with important information. We revamped our Former Player Business Directory and added player owned and operated foundations and charities. We redesigned NFLPA.com/former-players to be easier to navigate and contain more useful information along with allowing former players to write and be published on the page “Connected”. We created the Former Player Services Resource Book which is a comprehensive guide to all the resources offered to former players through the NFLPA in an easy to digest format.
Through player survey data we determined that our players desired more NFLPA events than just one yearly convention. We created the NFLPA Former Player Golf Challenge which was a two day event. One day of community service and networking and the second day of golf. We put on four of these events a year in the four regions of the United States in an effort to “go where our players are”. After the Trust came on line in November of 2013 we used the Golf Challenge to debut it to the players in Atlanta. In 2014 we redesigned the Golf Challenge and re-launched it as the NFLPA Regional Conference. The Regional Conference combines a day of professional development presented by the Trust and its partners and the second day is for personal development presented by the PAF and its partners. The evening networking event is called the NFLPA Locker Room. Held around the country they have a club like atmosphere exclusively for players and guests and are venues where players can network and enjoy the camaraderie of being around fraternity brothers again. It is great to see many of the communication and outreach strategies we developed now being used by other organizations trying to emulate how we are serving former players.
We developed a great partnership with Working America Health Care to provide guidance to our players seeking affordable health insurance. Working America Health Care provides a health care advocate to the former players to coordinate care, resolve claims and answer questions about coverage.
I am proud of the NFLPA Former Players chapter system, made up of thirty four chapters across the United States, and how they have developed since 2010. As with any other volunteer organization there are some chapters that perform well and some that perform poorly. The percentage of chapters performing well has dramatically increased since 2010. Now ninety percent of the chapters are in what we call “The Green”, according to a scoring system we developed, which entitles the leadership to attend the annual leadership meeting as well as the national convention all paid for by the NFLPA. These rewards are in gratitude for their volunteer service to the players in their communities. More importantly, a high performing chapter means a population of former players and their families across the country that are informed by and engaged with the NFLPA and all the services and resources we can provide them.
Advocacy for things other than the increase in benefits and pensions is something that does not get talked about as much as I believe it should. Our legal staff led by our Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, hard working partners like Joe Briggsand Ned Ehrlich and with the assistance of many players, successfully beat back crushing legislation that would have crippled former player workers compensation in California, Louisiana, Arizona and North Carolina. 4,000 players still have viable workers compensation claims in California through our efforts. I was extremely proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with other former players on the steps of the Capitol Building in Sacramento to fight for our workers compensation rights.
The NFLPA is committing $100 million to the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University and I am proud to be a player advisor for the study helping to design the surveys, provide player experience and guidance and promoting the program which has already had success as the largest former player study ever. We announced in March of 2015 a breakthrough in ACL repair that is a direct result of the partnership and will help all athletes for years to come.
Being in this position you will never make everyone happy. My post football life in financial services dealing with financial crisis prepared me for that. In approaching the job, my goal is to take all the former player data and issues out there, analyze that information, and try to come up with solutions for the population as a whole. When you have approximately 20,000 former players with a rich and diverse demographic ranging from vested, non-vested, old, young, Hall of Fame, grunt, successful transition, struggling transition, diverse races, and other demographic distinguishers you have to work with a panoramic lens and avoid the tunnel vision that leads to only focusing on one group and forsaking the others. If one can do this then the prospects of serving the majority of the needs of the players is very promising.
Writing this long post of my five years here at the NFLPA I am unfortunately leaving some important events out, things like the wonderful relationship developed with our union family the AFL-CIO and walking the picket lines (pictured with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka and Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler) with them around the country to give back to our brothers and sisters of the labor movement for their support of us in our times of need. I don’t want to turn this into a novel (probably too late for that!) but that doesn’t mean they are any less important. Please forgive me for that.
I am looking forward to the challenges of the coming years and continuing to try to make a difference for all our former players with the incredible team I have around me here in the Former Players Services Department as well as the whole NFLPA organization.
"I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."
-- Nolan Harrison III, MBA
Credits: Beginning and ending quotes are from the Game of Thrones "Night's Watch Oath"