If you follow news about the National Football League — see, for instance, Alan Schwarz‘s game-changing coverage of concussions — then you have recently come across the name George Atallah. He is the assistant executive director of external affairs for the N.F.L. Players Association, and as such has been very visible of late. Atallah was the first hire of DeMaurice Smith, the recently elected head of the N.F.L.P.A., who succeeded the longtime leader Gene Upshaw upon his death.
For years, the common wisdom was that Upshaw was too close to the league and team owners to suit the taste of some current and former players. The implication was that that new leadership in the players union would push for change. Is that happening?
To read the public comments of DeMaurice Smith and George Atallah, you get the sense that the union has indeed taken on more of an activist role than before, from the biggest issues (negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement) to the smaller (introducing its own line of N.F.L. merchandise in lower-end stores like Walgreens and Kroger).
Atallah, 31, was born in Lebanon and moved to New York as a child. Before coming to the N.F.L.P.A., he worked in media strategy and government relations; he also worked as a senior client analyst at Goldman Sachs, after which he became senior development associate for Seeds of Peace. (In order to persuade his parents that leaving Goldman for a non-profit was the right move, he made an elaborate PowerPoint presentation; for the most part, it worked.)
He has agreed to field your questions about the N.F.L., so please leave them in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his replies in short order. To prime the pump, I sent a few basic questions Atallah’s way; here are his answers:
What are the biggest issues on the N.F.L.P.A.’s agenda over the next 12 months?
Biggest issues include dealing with the health and safety issues of the game and N.F.L. players, negotiating a new C.B.A., and protecting and preparing our membership for a prospective lockout.
Briefly describe the learning experience of stepping into this job from the outside.
The job is not a job to me, but an experience of a lifetime. I believe that not having any experience in the business of football has been beneficial because we have brought some fresh ideas and a fresh approach to this position. The sports universe is great, but we strongly believe that our sport extends beyond this framework and our strategies and tactics are derived from this philosophy. I believe that I am able to bring a little bit of everything to this job from my previous careers. The links that I bring from my media relations firm are obvious to my role, but I also believe that the things I bring from my education (Boston College/ M.B.A. at George Washington University), Goldman Sachs, and Seeds of Peace are very transferable. This includes team building, management, understanding negotiation and mediation, and other things that I use every day.
What would you say are the fundamental differences between the new leadership and Upshaw’s?
Strangely, not many differences. De and I are both students of history and look back to those that have been caretakers of the N.F.L.P.A. for perspective. Much of what we have been saying publicly in this job is very similar to what Gene said during challenging times. We never had a chance to meet Gene, but once a month we look through his archived notes to gain insight into this role. History is very important to us, but I think that our ability to develop plans and strategies from outside the sports world is probably the biggest difference.
How has the dynamic between the league and the N.F.L.P.A. changed since the new leadership?
I think we are still feeling each other out. Adverse actions, however, create some tense feelings. When the owners opted out of the C.B.A. in 2006, they initiated a strategy to possibly lock out the players. Despite public comments to the contrary, the actions taken by the league — in particular hiring Bob Batterman, the lead counsel that built the strategy for N.H.L. lockout — have shown otherwise. This is the atmosphere that we assumed our roles under and it creates innate tension. Once the negotiations become more constructive, I think you’ll see some of that ease.
In the interest of full FTC-required blogger disclosure rules, let me say that I’ve hung out with Atallah a bit in recent months, and, knowing that our household is fond of the Steelers, he gave a pair of Rod Woodson jerseys to my kids. I would have returned them except — well, I didn’t want to. On the other hand: I bought Atallah dinner at a place that wasn’t too cheap, so I came out on well behind.
Addendum: Atallah answers your questions here.