Your N.F.L. Questions Answered, by George Atallah

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We recently solicited your questions for George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the N.F.L. Players Association. Atallah responded in a fashion that I believe is unique among all previous participants in our reader-generated Q&A’s: he answered every question you asked. If thoroughness counts for anything — not to mention candor and the willingness to engage sticky subjects — then the players would seem to have strong advocates in Atallah and his boss DeMaurice Smith. And of course they will need it, since they are headed toward a very tough labor negotiation with the N.F.L. Thanks to all of you for the questions and to Atallah for his participation.

Q.

Concussions are in the news, rightfully so, and I read somewhere (sorry don’t have the citation) that the N.F.L.P.A. did not support the commissioner’s request that fellow players speak up if/when they believe someone on their team has a potential concussion. Whether or not any of that is true, what’s your take on that issue? I’m more interested in the your personal, or the N.F.L.P.A.’s, take on that particular scenario.

Second, who’s your favorite active player to work with and why? — charles

A.

I did respond to this suggestion that players speak up if they see one of their teammates with “concussion symptoms.” I said then and I say now that I think it would be a great idea if players were doctors who had the ability to make such assertions. The burden and medical responsibility falls with the medical staff, not the teammates. Yes, teammates should look out for each other, but they should not be held responsible for identifying concussion symptoms.

As for my favorite players to work with, it’s not a political answer, but I love working with all the players I’ve encountered so far. LaDanian Tomlinsin, Charlie Batch, Domonique Foxworth, Drew Brees, Shaun O’Hara, Adalius Thomas, Scott Fujita, Joe Thomas, Kevin Mawae, and Chester Pitts stand out among many, many others. Of course, their competitive nature requires that I will now receive phone calls and texts from everyone else I didn’t name here. It’s the greatest experience to work with and for the players, and I relish it every day.

Q.

With regard to the actual gameplay, what is the N.F.L.P.A. doing about the undeserved penalties that seem to be increasing significantly? I don’t mean when refs miss calls — I know they are human — but calling roughing the passer when defenders nudge the quarterback (a la the Ravens and Tom Brady) and consistently inconsistent pass interference calls. Both can (and have this season) instantly change the course of a game. Is there any chance coaches’ challenges can be applied to penalties? — Dan

A.

The N.F.L. has most of the responsibility with respect to on-the-field game play. To their credit, they have cleaned up much of the dangerous elements of the game. Coach Jeff Fisher is on the competition committee and can help answer that better than I.

Q.

Do you think it would be beneficial to the league if they allowed a more free flow of of media including old clips and highlights? For example, Kenny Mayne does a great weekly piece on the N.F.L. for E.S.P.N., but the shows can’t be shown online (e.g., espn.com, youtube) after they air because they include game footage. Seems like the N.F.L., and the N.F.L.P.A., woud have some economic incentives for that type of footage to be more accessible to the fans. Am I wrong? — Andrew

A.

I visited N.F.L. Films headquarters a few weeks ago. It’s amazing how much archived footage they have. In fact, they are the second-largest video archive in the world — after the archives from World War II. We have our own initiative to show players behind the scenes and have launched our own YouTube channel. We also have a place where you — the fan — can interact. You should check that out here.

Q.

The Financial Advisor Registration Program is a great resource for players, yet players are still being defrauded by unscrupulous financial advisors and attorneys. Has any sort of financial education program been considered for new players? — Gary

A.

We have launched a new Financial Finesse program for N.F.L. players. This serves as their resource center for money management. We talk about financial management at every team meeting and encourage personal responsibility, especially since the paychecks may not be coming in if there is a lockout. N.F.L. players are businessmen in the business of football and we encourage them to step up and take responsibility with this in mind.

Q.

In the following Economist article, the author shows a graph of players’ salary growth by professional league from 1990.

It’s striking that N.F.L. players have had lower salary growth than the M.L.B. and N.H.L., as the N.F.L. has become the most profitable league and gained more “sports related” market share than any other league in that time period.

The article implies that this is due to the weakness of the union (because football players have shorter careers than other athletes on average), but is it possible that the N.F.L.P.A. and players have had the foresight to participate in revenue sharing and salary caps to support growth of the league as a whole? It would be a remarkable example of win-win thinking, if true. — vimspot

A.

The timing of this article is fascinating because it falls in the same year (2006) that the current collective bargaining agreement was extended. Then, in May of 2008 — a short two years after — the owners opted out. I still can’t understand why such a win-win scenario would ever be jeopardized. Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw took their licks, but it’s hard to argue with more than two decades of labor peace and unprecedented growth. The N.F.L. is America’s sport. Forty million people watched the N.F.L. draft in April, more than the M.L.B. and N.B.A. playoffs combined. Look at this year’s television ratings.

Q.

The recent story in the New Yorker seems spot on; both football (with debilitating concussions leading to more serious brain injuries) and dog fighting (dogs being eaten alive by another dog or tortured and killed by the dog’s owner) are similar in that they almost guarantee the destruction of the participant on some level. Why should society condone football that involves human beings when it prohibits dog fighting? — TSG

A.

Football has too many redeeming qualities to give up on it. It teaches teamwork and sportsmanship. It teaches discipline and hard work. It is an outlet for physical exercise and activity to many, and those values trickle down to the more than one million young people that play youth football in America. N.F.L. players set a great example for young people and contribute in countless ways in their communities. Our challenge is to make the game safer for everyone and minimize and eliminate the serious long-term negative impacts.

Q.

While the union and the league need to agree on equipment changes to prevent concussions, as a youth football coach/parent, I can unilaterally decide what additional equipment my team must wear and insist on it. What do you recommend? — Mike L

A.

U.S.A. Football. Visit their site and contact them directly. They are a tremendous resource for youth football.

Q.

I remember numerous charitable efforts from pro sports leagues and player’s unions that are well publicized on TV. I can think of physical fitness, education (e.g. reading), and welfare (e.g. food donations) as areas where most of these efforts concentrate. And the United Way is in many of these areas.

I would like to see more efforts go into promoting sportsmanship. Any ideas on what small steps could be taken? — Mike

A.

Across the board NFL players are a great example of sportsmanship. There is always more we can do and I will look into those organizations to promote it further.

Q.

I realize the forum that Mr. Atallah had was limited. However, I would have hoped to see some mention of a new emphasis on retired players’ issues, specifically concerning a significant increase in pension payments and a reformed disability process that accounts for the peculiar aspects of a pro-football career. Considering that all of the current news on brain trauma injury and concussions was started and maintained by independent retired players years ago, up to and including the summit this past May in Las Vegas that featured two of the foremost experts in this field, it would seem time that the N.F.L.P.A. at least add retired players to the priority list, even if they are at the bottom. — Marvin

A.

Yes, indeed, today’s N.F.L.P.A. has taken a new emphasis on former players. The philosophy of our new direction is actually the same for current and former players: this is the players’ union, not ours. We — DeMaurice Smith, the rest of the staff, and I — work for them. Their agenda is our agenda and we will work with any group that looks to advance player’s interests. For former players, we are actively working for a common agenda for common interests.

Q.

Is the union at all concerned with increasing pensions and health benefits for former players or is it strictly concerned with getting the most for its current members? — Just Me

A.

Yes. Absolutely. Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has said, “We have a moral and fiduciary responsibility to former players.”

Q.

What is the likelihood of the N.F.L.P.A. and the owners agreeing on a labor agreement for the 2010 season? If they fail to come to an agreement by the deadline, is a lockout in the near future? Or will we have a Madden-like uncapped year? What is the main issue the two sides are negotiating over? Rookies? — Kavon Akhtar

A.

Ask the N.F.L.; they opted out. We have always said that we’d like a deal before March of 2010 so that next year won’t turn into a video-game parody, as you describe it. There isn’t one real issue at stake, frankly, but now that there are negotiations, this is a unique window of opportunity for players to bring their issues to the table. Sadly, unlike Dubner and Levitt fans, we fear that there won’t be a cheap, simple fix. I invite Stephen and Steven into our world to help prove me wrong.

Q.

Why did the N.F.L.P.A. approve neurologists and neurosurgeons as independents who sit on the N.F.L. m-T.B.I. committee? Example: Joe Maroon and Mark Lovell.

Why does the N.F.L.P.A. let the league use ImPact exclusively that is owned by Dr. Maroon and Mark Lovell?

Why would the N.F.L.P.A. trust results from an instrument that seems to have failed to detect so many recent injuries? — jbloggs

A.

The N.F.L.P.A. and Medical Director Dr. Thom Mayer are working behind the scenes to come up with a comprehensive program to deal with concussions and head trauma. This process is happening very fast and as I said earlier, there has been more progress in the past 40 days than in the past 40 years. The N.F.L.P.A. formed its own independent Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Committee — thanks to Sean Morey — that is tasked with proactively driving the agenda on this issue and includes a number of independent researchers and medical experts.

Q.

Does the N.F.L.P.A. have any influence, by way of push back against seeming draconian fines? I know you have no say, but do you have any influence or leverage to ensure that the league isn’t giving (salaries) with one hand and taking (fines) with the other? — Bakes

A.

You are right, under the current system, we have little influence other than to appeal at the request of the player over “draconian” fines. It doesn’t make sense to me — and shouldn’t to any fan, frankly — that a player can be fined for every pound he is overweight/underweight but there is no retribution from the N.F.L. for teams that create harmful practice conditions for players. The current system is not transparent, nor reflective of any system or process in our society.

Q.

In the era of the salary cap which seems to be the reason that teams only need roughly two or three years to make a turnaround — turning a non-playoff team into a playoff team — don’t you think that a rookie salary cap makes sense? Is the players’ union opposed to such a cap or pre-structured table that states each year what the #1 overall would make? A couple of bad choices — only a couple — can cause a major setback of a team for many years because of the guaranteed money involved and the way it is accelerated against the cap if the player is cut. The team may face a five-year setback due to a couple of bad draft picks. — Keith H.

A.

We (fans) love the N.F.L. because every year our team gets a chance to make a playoff run. There is a direct correlation between on-the-field competitiveness and the business structure of the league. A rookie salary cap, or rookie wage scale, only makes sense if it’s discussed in the context of an open and honest negotiation. First, some facts: there already is a rookie salary cap of 4 percent. Not a single team in the past 10 years has spent up to the full amount of the salary cap on veterans. There is a long and rigorous process by which owners and general managers evaluate, test, and select players. We don’t get to see how fast people run or high they can jump at the combine. We don’t own a team. We don’t draft players. Do you want to tell Al Davis what player to draft?

If there were a rookie wage scale, where would the money go? Is it to keep or bring in proven veterans that will help your favorite team win? And if so, should we just take the N.F.L.’s word for it? With billions of dollars at stake would you take their word for it, or would you want something contractual in place? Right now, this rookie wage scale is not a player issue, it’s a game of “trust me.” Forgive me for being skeptical.

Q.

Are the ancillary league workers (trainers, refs, etc.) unionized as well? — frankenduf

A.

I believe the officials/referees are unionized along with some workers across some stadiums. There are roughly 100,000 stadium workers across the country and countless small businesses that are impacted by the business of football. With the current economic conditions, these are the biggest losers in a lockout.

Q.

Concussion research, treatment, and policies are all over the place. What criteria does the N.F.L.P.A. use to decide what concussion research is valid, and helpful? — B. May

A.

We are working on a comprehensive concussion policy right now. We will not make any announcements until it is completed and comprehensive.

Q.

Globally, but especially here in the United States, we have, in my opinion, an organized labor crisis. It cannot be denied that perhaps one of our greatest cultural contributions as a country has been the advent and proliferation of organized labor. Weekends, minimum wages, safe working conditions, good health-care and (at least in some industries) increased protection from being unduly terminated are all directly related to the union movement.

But in the modern era, although the workplace has evolved exponentially, the union mentality and methodology remains unchanged.

The N.F.L.P.A. is a perfect example of everything wrong with organized labor today. Yes, the N.F.L. is an incredibly revenue (and one assumes profit) rich endeavor. Yes, the players work extremely hard and at great physical risk for the entertainment of us the fans and the enrichment of the owners. Yes, the league would be nowhere without the players.

But the reverse is also true. The players would be nowhere without the league (read: owners). In the current C.B.A. (recently not renewed), the league pays players 60 percent of gross revenues. Since the players are highly compensated by salary, let’s put the risk of physical injury aside for the moment. Here is what you have: a group of people who are reaping 60 percent of gross rewards, while participating in 0 percent of the risk.

Is there anyone on earth who wouldn’t take that deal? Or even 1/10th of that deal? I know I sure would.

The battle cry from “De” has been that the owners must open their books to scrutiny of the N.F.L.P.A. Why? Is it up to the union to dictate how much money the owners can make?

Imagine this scenario being played out in the real world: I decide that the company I work for cannot function without me. Knowing this, I decide that I am not being compensated enough. So I walk into my boss’s office and demand not only that he increase my compensation, but that he subject himself to an audit so that I can decide for myself if I am getting a big enough piece of the pie.

Throwing aside all the other factors that muddy the waters (the league’s revenue sharing policy, public vs. private funding for stadia, uncertainty about continued growth and popularity), it is clear from where I sit that the N.F.L.P.A. has lost sight of the real issues.

Free agency has become a joke (The top free agents demand the most lucrative deals possible, in direct contradiction to the “collective” ideal), the rookie wage scale still hasn’t materialized, and the union defends steroid abusers.

And so my question is this: what do you say to a die-hard fan like me who will turn my back on these hyper-talented athletes who are paid handsomely and generally behave like spoiled children if/when you all force a work-stoppage? — I doubt you’ll answer but…

A.

Dear, I’ll Doubt You’ll Answer But…, thank you for stepping up. When I first read your question I thought you were Bob Batterman himself. The issues you describe as those that “muddy the waters,” factually embody the N.F.L. Revenue sharing, public financing, and non-profit status are not ancillary issues, they are the issues and framework under which the N.F.L. operates its business. If the N.F.L. were, say, Goldman Sachs — a publicly traded company with annually audited financial statements that sold financial products — then perhaps we’d have less of a raison d’etre. But it’s not. The N.F.L. is a non-profit entity with anti-trust exemptions granted by Congress that sells and profits from … wait for it … players. Players are the product. They are not a labor cost required to produce a widget.

A few questions for you in return that I hope you will rise to the occasion and answer honestly for yourself. What was the average increase in team values over the past 20 years? What was the rise in the N.F.L.’s total revenue over that period of time? Do you know if players had any long-term investment or equity stake either in the N.F.L., or in any N.F.L. team? Is the risk of permanent physical damage considering the answer to the previous question not enough risk? What is the total amount of public money that N.F.L. teams have received in that time to build stadiums? What other business in America has guaranteed revenues through 2014? Why do shareholders of any company call for audited financial statements? Did the lack of financial transparency in America contribute to the current financial crisis? Did the N.F.L.P.A., or the players, want out of the current collective bargaining agreement? Do we want a lockout? As a self-proclaimed die-hard fan and contributor to the most profitable sport ever, don’t you demand that your team is doing what it can to get proven players to win? Or do you prefer to just grab the remote control and flip the channel?

I am a fan too. A die-hard Giants fan. It would crush me not to have the chance to watch Shaun O’Hara and my team play in the 2011 season. I hope we never get there. If you don’t like the product, remember that you can always flip the channel. My guess is you won’t, because every week in the N.F.L. something incredible happens. And I can’t get enough.

Thanks for your question. You (and all other readers) can always continue the debate with me through email at mailbag@nflplayers.com and at my Twitter page.


Tim

Huge NFL fan. Most of his answers were what you would expect to hear from a public relations standpoint, but I really liked his answers on the rookie scale and the union asking to see the owners' books.
This definitely gave me a little different perspective (players are the product, not the employees) on the issue.

One thing he misstated - we now can watch how fast the players run and jump at the combine. It's all on the NFL network.

Lona Vet

What do coaches and contractorsconsider to be risk factors that players cannot take, while under contract with a team (on or off the field)?

Yourmum

40 million people watched the NFL draft, more than the NBA and MLB playoffs combined? Oh really? What kind of Enron number crunching did do to get that number from?

jking

What about STEROIDS?

Tom Aikins

Sorry, Stephen, but your analysis of George's answers is just as self-serving as his answers to tough questions. Basically, there were no answers. If this is an example of the NFL's candor then they're slightly less forthcoming than the Bush White House. For example, when asked about inconsistent penalty calls he refers the reader to Jeff Fisher. That's real candor.

Gerbillus

Entertaining, but he completely dodged Andrew's question about using old clips and highlights on espn.com and youtube.

He answered a different question and gave a link to a site where videos are shown of fans talking about their teams.

Answer the question, please.

george

My area of concern is with the inequities in the draft. The poorer teams, particularly small market ones, will not improve under the current structure. The big market rich teams, Giants, Cowboys, Pats., etc., are on top and will be there forever. Parity is a joke. Buffalo or Detroit will never win a championship. One player cannot make that much of a difference, and may be a disaster-- see Keith comment above.
What would you think of giving teams who don't make the playoffs year after year an extra draft pick, and an expanded salary cap and roster. It might even things out. Otherwise, the losers will still be losers.

arthur nyc

Wait a minute, this is just another interview for god's sake, where does Freakonomics, as we know it, come in?

Deborah Solomon, move over!

Norm

"Here is what you have: a group of people who are reaping 60 percent of gross rewards, while participating in 0 percent of the risk."

Only someone working for management in contract negotiations could make a statement as outrageously misleading as this .

Let's talk about physical risks - long-term pain and suffering from damage incurred from one's playing days is hardly zero risk - not to mention the increased risks of early death, cognitive losses, injury-induced psychological and emotional problems, and dementia. I don't see any of the owners, investors, or "assistant executive directors of external affairs" facing these risks.

Then, consider the average length of a playing career in the NFL - yes, the remuneration is very good, but for how long? Many players have few other employment skiills on which to fall back and face dramatic reductions in annual income upon leaving the game. Exactly how long is that 60% supposed to last a player whose career is over in 3 - 5 years?

George Atallah is nothing more than a public relations spin doctor, putting the best face on a management - union situation which does its best to exploit workers until they are physically unable to do their jobs, then discards them like used Kleenex.

Atallah's comments are so sleazy, dishonest, and evasive, I can only conclude his background was in law before he became a hit man for NFL management and owners.

Read more...

Michael

One question nobody asked George [perhaps Mr. Dubner will pass it along]:

The elephant-in-the-room question / possibility, looming even worse than a work-stoppage, has to do with ALL league games eventually being "cable-ized", as the Mon. night games already have been. If / when there are NO MORE games left on free-tv, what happens then? Does the league believe that people will pay to watch games at home?

Gary

Michael #10: Ask the NHL how that model is working out...

EdM

Did he even answer a single question?

JTS

On nudging Tom Brady... Oh, please. The Patriots have the most roughing the passer penalties in the NFL. Don't even get me started on the phantom PI calls. Colts, anyone?

Mike

Next time, I recommend that he answer fewer questions in detail rather than all the questions.

What did I learn from all these answers? I can't think on anything meaningful certainly nothing that will stick with me by this afternoon.

Hank

Norm - Do you realize that Mr. Atallah works for the PLAYERS Association?

Dan

All I got out of it was:

1. He doesn't want players reporting other players concussions.

2. He's against a rookie cap.

I'm guessing the rookies hold the greatest amount of leverage because it's like a new gift of hope to all the fans on the day of the draft (like Christmas) but then if the team doesn't sign the player, they are viewed as a bad organization.

Yuliy

Norm #9: I think you misread. That statement was by the person asking the question, not Atallah.

Ben

@Norm (#9):

You clearly misread the interview. Atallah is a union representative. The quote you take such issue with is from a question one of the Freakonomics readers posed to him, rather than from a response he gave.

5cott

I quit reading about a third of the way down, when it became evident he wasn't actually going to:

- admit anything was wrong with his organization or the NFL

and/or

- actually answer any of the hard questions.

JPC

Weak answers. Proves once again the NFL stand for No Fun League.