By Kevin Sherrington, Staff Columnist
Before a downtown hotel audience of two cameramen and yours truly, Cyrus Mehri kicked off his national campaign Monday for executive director of the NFL Players Association. Frankly, the poker crowd didn’t seem fitting. Even Pat Paulsen announced his ’68 presidential bid on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and, unlike Richard Nixon, he was only joking.
Mehri’s not kidding, and here’s why you should care:
With 25 years’ experience in labor and as the driving force behind the “Rooney Rule,” pushing diversity in NFL coaching hires, he’s got the chops for such a tricky job.
He wants to provide players a weekly social issues forum that educates instead of dividing.
And he thinks he knows how to avoid a work stoppage in 2021. I know. I buried the lead.
DeMaurice Smith, the incumbent NFLPA boss, has called a work stoppage in four years “almost a virtual certainty.” Mehri was blunt about such a threat.
“That,” he said, “strikes no fear in the heart of an owner.”
Here’s why: Players are millionaires; owners are billionaires. There are also fewer owners, so it’s not as difficult to rally the troops. Jerry Jones and his boys have a long winning streak in collective bargaining agreements. No NFL owner is slicker around a negotiating table than the Cowboys’ boss. Between you and me, when dealing with Jerry, keep your wallet between your teeth.
Anyway, owners won the last CBA in a landslide. One agent called the 2011 deal “the worst CBA in professional sports history.”
Even though team revenues are up significantly, the players are receiving a smaller piece of the pie. As you might imagine, this has caused some rumbling in the ranks.
“If we want to get anything done,” the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman said in an interview this summer, “players have to be willing to strike. That’s the thing that guys have to hundred percent realize. You’re going to have to miss games, you’re going to have to lose some money if you’re willing to make the point, because that’s how MLB and NBA got it done.”
For the record, the NFLPA is the weakest of the three major sports unions. Not even close. Matthew Stafford just signed a $135 million deal with the Lions, richest contract in NFL history. But only a little less than half of it is fully guaranteed. Meanwhile, Albert Pujols will make $30 million a season through 2021 even if he’s mummified.
Sure, I know what you’re thinking: No matter how much pro athletes make, it’s more than you or me. Hard to sympathize with guys paid so handsomely to play a game. But sooner or later more football players are going to notice the discrepancy between their peers in basketball and baseball, and they’re going to wonder, if football is the nation’s leading sport, how come they make so much less than basketball and baseball players? They might even listen to the likes of Sherman and decide that sitting out is the way to go. And what fan wants his Sundays or fantasy football league interrupted?
Better question: How do you get a fairer CBA without a work stoppage?
First of all, Mehri cites his track record. He’s gone head-to-head with Texaco, Coca-Cola and the Ford Motor Co. All bigger than the NFL. The secret, he says, is consistent dialogue.
“What we have,” he said, “is a much more elaborate playbook. Our playbook starts with negotiation. Being at the table. Working in good faith to solve problems.”
Mehri plans to implement something called an “owner accountability campaign.” What it entails requires more space than I’m allotted, but Mehri provided the bottom line.
“It puts all the pressure on management and will not require players to miss a single game,” he said. “This gives the players leverage.
“Under our plan, we will have the leverage, and that will create the dynamic to get a fair deal going forward.”
The believers include Jim Brown, Kellen Winslow Sr., Harry Carson, Mean Joe Greene and John Wooten, who blocked for Brown and spent 17 years as director of scouting for the Cowboys.
“The NFLPA sets the tone for what the players should be about and what the league should be about,” Wooten said Monday. “This man, Cyrus Mehri … is the key to what we’ve accomplished and the key to what we’re asking.
“We’ve known him. We know his heart. We know his integrity. But above all we know his ability to make things right with everyone.”
To further make his case Tuesday, Wooten will introduce Mehri to a group of Cowboys players and NFL-exes Tuesday night at the Cooper Clinic. Bill Bates showed up early from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., for moral support.
Mehri and his supporters must move fast. Last month, The Washington Postreported that NFL player reps will vote in October whether to retain Smith as executive director. If that happens, Mehri’s campaign won’t get much further than the Westin’s Bluebonnet room.
And that would be a shame, indeed, because a mission as quixotic as this one deserves a shot.