Interview with George Atallah of NFLPA

On Monday I received an unexpected phone call from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.  In the call, Mr. Goodell made claims which I attempted to verify

In the interest of fairness, I wanted to give the NFLPA the opportunity to respond to some of the points Mr. Goodell made. 

I was granted an interview with George Atallah.  Atallah is the Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs for the NFL Players Association. Atallah manages the NFLPA’s media relations, strategic partnerships and fan outreach.  Like Mr. Goodell, I found Mr. Atallah to be warm, familiar, and impressive. His tone was pleasant, calm and engaging. He was generous with his time, and we spoke for roughly a half an hour about a wide range of topics. Unlike my call with Mr. Goodell, because I knew when I was going to speak with Mr. Atallah, I was able to record the conversation (with his permission) and take notes.  Thus, Mr. Atallah has the advantage that I will be presenting his actual words rather than merely a summary of them.   That is an advantage, obviously, and I regret not being able to do the same for the Commissioner.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, free of editorial comment.  Tomorrow, I will give my thoughts on what Mr. Atallah presented.  I had three aims in talking with him. First, I wanted to get his reaction to things the Commissioner said.  Second, I wanted to ask the same question I asked of the Commissioner, finally, I wanted to ask Mr. Atallah some of the difficult questions that fans have been bringing up both on Twitter and in the comment section of 18to88.

18to88: George, I want to specifically ask you to respond to a couple of the points the Commissioner made.  The first was that he felt, in terms of the television contract ruling, that the Special Master had ruled correctly in favor of the NFL after nine days of testimony, and that the ruling of Judge Doty was incorrect.  

Mr. Atallah: Actually the Special Master didn’t rule entirely that the NFL was correct.  The judge did award damages, did find that there was a breach of contract, and that there was a violation of the league’s contractual obligation to the players. He just happened not to put their four billion dollars into play.  It’s not like the Special Master ruling was this enormous victory for the league. It certainly did not provide the thing the players were asking for, which was to put the money in escrow, but at the same time they broke the law; they violated their contract and their fiduciary responsibility to the players.  From our perspective, that’s why we have a judicial system. There’s no editorial commentary on a judge’s opinion on our end. The only thing we know, or the players know, is that the television contracts are probably the single biggest evidence available to show that a lockout was being planned from a long time ago.

18to88: I also asked Mr. Goodell about certain behaviors by the owners, specifically comments by Jerry Richardson toward Drew Brees and Peyton Manning as well as by Jerry Jones in the final week. He implied that such things were overstated and that players were not actually offended by the behavior.  Do you believe players were offended and that the owners behaved appropriately. Do you feel the media overplayed this for effect?

Mr. Atallah: I’m not going speak on behalf of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday, Scott Fujita or any individual player. I can tell you that the only issue that the players had throughout the previous bargaining process was that the decision making process was slow. Proper preparations for the process were neither reasonable nor conducted with a sense of urgency. Finally, let’s go back to the TV contracts. What player wouldn’t be offended that the league was taking money from them to plan their own demise. So do the individual antics make a difference?  I’ll leave that up to the guys who were in the room to talk about it, because I wasn’t there. But I can tell you that the biggest slap in the face was that you tell people you are negotiating with them in good faith while taking money from them to plan a lockout.

18to88:  I asked Roger Goodell if he felt the league drug their feet in terms of a first offer to the players. He told me the first offer was made in 2009 and that bargaining sessions occurred regularly for two years. Do you feel the league reacted with appropriate speed and hurried to the bargaining table as quickly as they could have?

Mr. Atallah: We’re now in the litigation phase, and players had to make the decision on their own to take the drastic step to give up their collective bargaining rights to prevent a lockout, and that’s where we are.  As it relates to the negotiating process from May 2009 to March 2011, on the day we were informed we were locked out, there were a lot of things that went on.  There were 50 negotiating sessions. There were countless conversations. There were documents exchanged. There were proposals exchanged.  It was very unfortunate though, that of all the documentation presented during that period, of all the conversations presented during that period, the one key that remained absent and the one document we never got was the audited financial statements. Whether or not the proposals were good or characterized as good or if they were reasonable or not reasonable, I’ll leave that up to the ‘opinion-naters’ to decide. At the end of the day, the proof was never there. The audited financial statements were never offered. We never had the opportunity to save the National Football League and give back over a billion dollars a year or not.

18to88: Let me ask you the core question.  Everything I asked the Commissioner boiled down to one idea. Is there anything the players’ side regrets that happens, anything you wish could have happened differently that was under the control of the players that might have in some small way contributed to the impasse. Anything at all.

Mr. Atallah: Tongue-in-cheek? We should have given a billion dollars back. I have a hard time with that question. The players established DeMaurice Smith as executive director in March of 2009. The people who work for the players in this building had one task and one task only: leave no stone unturned. That meant on negotiations at the time (we’re not a union anymore, we don’t negotiate collectively anymore, all of this is historical), leave no stone unturned on the negotiations, no stone unturned on preparations for a lockout. Do we feel like we did that?  We did.  At the end of the day, we didn’t opt out of the deal. We didn’t lock ourselves out. Only one group of people initiated a lockout. Only one group of people initiated an opt out of the deal.

Which by the way, I’ll take it one step further. Now that we are in litigation, this notion that the plaintiffs and the players in this case are going to ruin football is exactly the kind of fear-mongering we saw in ’89 and ’93. It was, “Oh my gosh if the players have free agency it’s going to ruin football. Oh my gosh, if the players have free agency, what are we going to do?  This is the end of football as we know it!” Well, guess what? Free agency is one of the foundations that has helped the game grow. While the players are not suing and litigating to change the-and I’m definitively telling you that we are not going to turn around tomorrow and say, “We want one year free agency from now until the end of time”. We are not out here to ruin the game. The only reason the players went to court. Two very important facts: the only reason the players went to court was to get the lockout lifted. The second fact is that if the owners truly do not want a lockout, they can lift the lockout at any time. And then guess what? We’d be out of court. Seriously.

Sometimes things are really that simple. We are only in court to get this lockout lifted. If they lift the lockout and impose some set of reasonable rules, we’d be playing football and we’d be out of court.

18to88: Fans are confused about the mediated talks ordered by Judge Nelson. I realize that they are not CBA talks because there is no union, but are they discussing CBA issues or only the specific charges in the lawsuit?

Atallah: It is settlement of the litigation.

18to88: How do you respond to criticism from small businessmen that say that in a normal business, “If my employees ever told me how much money they wanted to make or demanded I open my books, I’d be irate.  I’d never allow that!”.  Why should an employee get to demand financial records from his employer?

Atallah: How many employers do you know are protected by anti-trust laws?  How many employers do you know are non-profit entities that don’t have to release audited financials? I can’t think of one. I used to work for a non-profit by the way.  I don’t know of many companies or entities that fit those descriptions. It’s very simple. You have a small business, or a grocery store, Target, Wal-Mart, any company in America…your employees can seek employment at other stores. They aren’t monopolies. They are not, and this is loaded but I’ll say it anyway, “economic cartels”, which the NFL is. It’s an ‘economic cartel’.  It strikes me that hundreds of thousands of companies release their audited financials because they are publicly traded, so what’s the big deal?

18to88:  The union began discussing decertification in August and September.  How do you respond to those who say the union has never negotiated in good faith and always wanted this to wind up in court?

Atallah: The players’ economic proposals gave back the league almost $600 million without seeing audited financial statements. If we were “being unreasonable” or just wanted to litigate and decertify, why would we have made any concessions at all?  That makes no sense.

18to88:  Many feel the government shouldn’t have any role in this process. The mere act of going to court is unbecoming. The sides should sit down, talk it out and not drag the courts into this.

Atallah: Like work it out over a beer? That could be the case if illegal activity wasn’t taking place.  Whether you are a small company in a non-descript town in America or the National Football League. The last time I checked, the law applies to both of them equally. 

18to88: By illegal activity, you mean the television contract?

Atallah: Yes, and the lockout itself.  So here we are.

I thank Mr. Atallah for his time and his candor. Tomorrow, I’ll express my personal reaction to this conversation editorially.

Update: That commentary is now available