"Getting to Know" sits down with Associate General Counsel Ned Ehrlich. He talks about his love for helping players, his first flight as a pilot and his unusual path to the legal world.
Where are you from?
I’m from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Juniata College, which was Chuck Knox’s alma mater. And I went to law school at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
How did you end up with the NFLPA?
I was an athletic trainer with the Eagles during the summer of 1979. Philadelphia’s head athletic trainer thought I cared too much about the players and suggested law school. He sent me to Miami the next summer to show me how a really bad facility could operate, and Ron Jaworski and a bunch of the Dolphins players also suggested that I try to get a job with their union.
I applied to law school with the idea that I really wasn’t going to go, or that I’d spend a year. [Otho] told me if I spent a year there and didn’t like it, then he’d get me a job anywhere in the NFL. But I went to law school and loved it.
I actually ended up interning at the NFLPA in 1981, and 1982. I worked from Philadelphia in 1983 while I studied for the bar.
After law school, there weren’t any open positions at the NFLPA, so I was in private practice for 30 years. And I returned here in 2012, almost 30 years to the day that I left.
What are your primary job responsibilities?
Anything Tom DePaso (general counsel) or DeMaurice Smith (executive director) asks me to do [laughter].
I was brought in to help with workers’ compensation issues. I handle grievances that need to be litigated. My background as an athletic trainer certainly helps with the health and safety issues. I also deal with players’ electronic medical records.
What do you like most about your job?
I like helping the players. That was what I liked about private practice, and it’s what I like about this. At the end of the day, you can know that you’ve done something to help players and protect them, especially when they might not be in a position to do that on their own.
In 30 years I’ve stayed friends with almost every player I’ve represented. They continue to call me over the years and keep in touch. There have been a ton of no-names and a lot of big names that I’ve represented. They all appreciated what has been done for them.
Do any clients stand out above the rest?
There was a player who was in pretty tough straits when we got to him. He spent five years in college but was three years away from graduating. When we finished his [workers’ compensation] case, he was still in tough shape. But the money and help we were able to get him put him on the path to become the chief of his local police department. So he’s done well.
A lot of guys have said to me, ‘I don’t know what I would’ve done without the funds to pay my medical bills’ or ‘I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have the assistance to take care of myself.’
Did you always want to work in sports?
Yeah, I’ve always enjoyed sports. I was a horrible football player and a worse pole vaulter. Like I said, I thought I was going to be a trainer.
The fact that I went to law school and loved it was a huge surprise because I wasn’t a particularly good student in college or high school. But I was a very good law student.
What did you find more appealing about law school?
I’m a pragmatist. I saw that there was a function, and I was learning something I could use. I saw this was going to be something that was useful to me, and I could actually help people with it. That was what I liked about being a trainer, helping people.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Making sure the players show up for their hearings has always been a challenge. Getting a response can sometimes be difficult. Sometimes I’ve shown up and there has been no client.
You certainly have guys who are much more invested in their case and the outcome, and are much more responsive. Then you have those who are simply leaving it up to you.
What has been your most memorable moment since you came back in 2012?
Beating back the owners’ attempt to change the workers’ compensation laws in North Carolina and turning around what they tried to do in California. The changes we pushed for have allowed thousands of players to still have a right to workers’ comp in California. If the owners had gotten what they wanted, there wouldn’t be any comp for professional athletes in California.
If you could work in another NFLPA department, which one would it be?
Former Player Services has a similar bent in terms of helping former players make sure they’re protecting themselves. So that department would probably be the closest match.
What is your favorite city?
Probably Aspen, Colorado. I love to ski, and I love everything about that environment.
What are some of your favorite hobbies?
Skiing, golfing, flying.
I’m licensed to fly single-engine, fixed-gear, high-performance planes.
I actually got my pilot’s license in less than six months. I now have more than 1,500 hours flying. I haven’t flown in the last two years since I’ve started here, but if I could pick that back up I’d certainly like that.
What motivated you to pursue that?
Skiing [laughter]. It got me to the mountains quicker.
When did you get your license?
I actually got my license when the Phillies went to the World Series in 1993. The day I got my license, I flew from Reading, Penn., straight to Toronto to watch them in the World Series.
Two of my buddies went with me. One of them said to his mother, ‘I don’t think Ned wants to die any more than I do.’
What is your favorite NFLPA event?
I like the Player Representative meetings. I really enjoy the challenges that go on there. The education of the players, the parties afterwards, I love the whole bit.
Sometimes those meetings have gotten a little testy, but they’re always interesting and challenging.
Who is somebody you look up to?
Both of my parents. They both just died in the last three months. My dad was the first in his family to go to college or law school. He survived World War II in the middle of law school and was promoted to Major.
My mother was one of the first women to go to law school at Yale. She was the first woman judge in Berks County.
The hurdles they overcame without any residual prejudices…they always wanted to help others. They were service-oriented. My dad was a union labor lawyer. My mother was an estates and family lawyer before becoming a family court judge.
My grandparents were immigrants and escapees from Nazi Europe. So those four kind of drove and created the personality I’ve got.
Were your parents responsible for getting you interested in law?
No, it was the players. I thought I was going to be an athletic trainer. My folks had no idea I was going to go to law school.
When I told my dad I was coming to work here 35 years ago and this was what I wanted to do with my life he said, ‘Let me get this straight: you want to be a labor-side labor lawyer for a sports union? You’re an idiot.’
Of course, 30 years later when I came back here he thought it was great. But the profession had changed, and he had watched my practice and knew I loved what I did every day.
What is your Mount Rushmore of movies?
I actually stood on the top of Mount Rushmore on Lincoln’s head! In 1986 we flew a small plane in; someone got a pass from the governor and we hiked to the top of Mount Rushmore. But we had to be off before the park opened.
Getting back to the question, my four favorite movies are The Hot Rock, Animal House, Blazing Saddles and Slap Shot.
Associate General Counsel Ned Ehrlich with his daughers at the NFLPA