Who will be the next head of the NFL Players Association?

Here’s the rundown on the likely candidates.

The NFL Players Association’s Board of Player Representatives will reportedly be meeting in June to consider and potentially vote on a new Executive Director to replace DeMaurice Smith, who has held the position since March 2009. No candidate has been publicly identified, and thus what follows is an educated guess.

First, it is helpful to revisit the process by which Mr. Smith initially obtained the position. The position was left vacant by the unexpected death of Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame player who had led the union since 1983. The front runners to succeed Mr. Upshaw were Troy Vincent, a retired star player who was President of the NFLPA from 2004 to 2008, and David Cornwell, a prominent attorney who had represented professional athletes in a variety of matters. Mr. Smith, then a partner at a major D.C. law firm, had no prior experience with the National Football League but won over the players during the interview process.

With that history in mind, let us consider some potential candidates.

The reruns

David Cornwell. Mr. Cornwell was the most qualified candidate in 2009 and thus merits consideration again. He has been with several large law firms and had his own practice. He has continued to remain involved in sports law, and even consulted with the NFL for a period of time, where he started his career.

Troy Vincent. After losing out to Mr. Smith in 2009, Mr. Vincent surprised the football world by accepting a position with the NFL. Since then, he has risen to the role of Executive Vice President of Football Operations, one of the league’s leading executives. Despite his role in the League, he has at times has promoted the players’ perspective and undoubtedly is well qualified for the role.

Current employees of the Players Association

Tom DePaso. In 1984, after a brief NFL playing career, Mr. DePaso became a lawyer for the Players Association and is currently its General Counsel. His experience and institutional knowledge is unmatched internally.

Teri Smith. Currently Chief Operating Officer for the Players Association, Ms. Smith has been with the union in some capacity since 2009. She has led union efforts on various sensitive matters and is well-regarded in sports legal circles. She would be the first female head of the NFL Players Association. (The National Basketball Players Association has had two female Executive Directors in succession.)   

Don Davis. Mr. Davis is a Senior Director at the Players Association and a Senior Advisor to the Executive Director, having been with the union since 2010. Before joining the Players Association, Mr. Davis had a four-year playing career and coached for five years.

Former players

Domonique Foxworth. Mr. Foxworth had a six-year playing career, during which he rose to the level of President of the Players Association. When his playing career ended in 2011, he remained with the union until 2014 and at one time was considered a protégé of Mr. Smith. In 2016, after a brief stint with the National Basketball Players Association, he became a commentator on ESPN.  Mr. Foxworth was a prominent presence during the 2011 NFL contract negotiations and related litigation.

Matt Schaub. Mr. Schaub was an NFL quarterback for 17 seasons from 2004 through 2020 and a player representative to the union during his career. He has publicly stated his desire for the position.

Eric Winston. Mr. Winston was an NFL lineman from 2006 through 2017 and President of the Players Association from 2014 through 2020. He was with the union during both of the last two labor negotiations and thus possesses the best institutional knowledge of any recently retired player.

Anthony Gonzalez. After a four-year NFL career following a standout college career at Ohio State University, Mr. Gonzalez served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican representing Ohio. Mr. Gonzalez chose not to seek reelection after criticizing former President Donald Trump and voting in favor of his impeachment.

Outside counsel

David Feher. Mr. Feher is a partner at Winston & Strawn LLP and co-chair of its Sports Law Practice. Mr. Feher is a protégé of Jeffrey Kessler, one of the most prominent sports litigators and attorneys of all time. At Winston & Strawn and prior firms for the past 30 years, Mr. Feher has been outside counsel to the NFL Players Association and the National Basketball Players Association on all their contract negotiations and related litigation.

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The above are probably not the only candidates. Former player Kellen Winslow, Sr., and sports attorney Andrew Brandt have both been mentioned. The process has thus far been impressively secretive. The ultimate choice will perhaps be surprising, just as it was in 2009. Then the hard work will begin, but not immediately. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to a sign an extension that will keep him in the job through the 2027 season. The current collective bargaining agreement does not expire until March 2031. That will give the new Executive Director time to develop a relationship with Commissioner Goodell and the NFL, and plot a path toward a new agreement while preparing for the possibility of a work stoppage and litigation.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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