A League of Fans Special Feature
Q’s & A’s with Leading Sports Reformers
Cyrus Mehri has a long history of fighting for social justice. He is a discrimination, civil and consumer rights, worker rights and corporate fraud lawyer. Mehri has represented employees, consumers, investors, athletes, small businesses and others in high-impact cases against powerful interests. He has been named by Workforce magazine as “Corporate America’s Scariest Opponent.”
On September 30, 2002, Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri issued a ground-breaking report, “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities,” which revealed that black NFL head coaches were held to a higher standard than their white counterparts, and were consequently denied a fair chance to compete for head coaching jobs. The report opened the sports world’s eyes to NFL teams’ unfair hiring processes.
Within two months of the report’s release, the NFL had formed a diversity committee, headed by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, and announced a diversity plan, which included the requirement that each team interview at least one minority candidate prior to selecting a head coach. The requirement came to be known as the “Rooney Rule,” and it changed NFL hiring practices for coaches.
Mehri has launched a number of projects aimed at systematically remedying discrimination, improving opportunities, and bettering corporate behavior, including the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an affinity group for NFL minority coaches, front office and scouting personnel that has worked to dramatically change the face of NFL management.
Mehri is campaigning for the executive director position of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA). He believes NFL players currently have the worst representation in professional sports.
Mehri was recently interviewed by League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director, Ken Reed.
Reed: Could you give us an overview of your thoughts regarding the current situation facing the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA)?
Mehri: Well, I’ve long been involved in the spectrum of social justice. I’d like to see the player protest issues get resolved in a concrete way with real deliverables for the long term.
But my latest venture with the NFL involves a number of Hall-of-Famers and legends of the game coming to me who feel that things are getting ugly and heading in the wrong direction between the union and the league, and that the union doesn’t really fight for players in an effective way. And so I put together a comprehensive vision statement, a platform, and announced that I was running for executive director of the NFL Players Association.
What we’re fighting, with the current leadership of the NFLPA, headed by DeMaruice Smith, the current executive director, is the corporate takeover of a major union. Smith comes out of a corporate law background. He brought in some other corporate law cronies to help run the union. They don’t have true worker rights people running the union and they are making anti-union, anti-player choices.
It is very rare to have a union run by alumni of union-busting corporate law firms. The NFL situation is treasonous in the labor movement.
The bottom line is, the NFLPA is a union that has lost its way, that doesn’t have worker rights in their DNA. The only way NFL players are going to be properly represented is if you have worker rights leaders running the show.
Reed: What have been the tangible effect of having a union leader with a corporate background like Smith’s?
Mehri: There aren’t deliverables to the players. They have what is widely seen as the worst collective bargaining agreement in sports history. They forfeited billions of dollars that under the prior CBA would’ve gone to the players and instead now go to the owners.
Smith also gave the NFL commissioner unchecked power on discipline. And then he entered into a 10-year CBA deal. Every other deal in the labor movement is 4-6 years. So, these players are now locked into a disadvantageous deal for a decade.
In effect, Smith has robbed the players of their economic well being by entering into the worst CBA of all-time. He robbed them of their dignity by not requiring checks and balances in the player discipline process. And now, under the guise of “streamlining the process,” he has robbed the rank and file players of the right to vote in their own union.
Reed: How can you turn this around?
Mehri: Well, luckily our campaign can help turn this around. Two out of three of the 32 team player reps can vote to amend the NFLPA constitution to restore democracy, open up the union leadership, and allow the rank and file more say regarding who will lead them.
I think there’s a corrosive effect of having people who have always been on the side of the most powerful, not on the least powerful, in charge of the union. But there is a mechanism in place by which that could be changed.
These NFL players are essentially doomed if they don’t regain control of their union.
Reed: At what point did you decide to run for executive director of the NFLPA?
Mehri: Well, in the months leading up to the time I announced in August of 2017, I spoke to several of these Hall-of-Famers who really wanted me to run. I had certain criteria before I would run. One was that we needed to articulate our ideas regarding why I would run into a vision statement. We put that together. And I wanted the support of certain people I really respected in the NFL Hall-of-Fame community. When they said we really need you to do it that was kind of decisive for me.
Reed: How would you describe a “worker rights” union?
Mehri: Well, first of all, respect the players and talk to them in meaningful ways. Make sure their voices are heard. Make sure the players are treated with dignity.
Two, make sure the players get a fair economic deal, leveling the playing field.
Right now, the NFL players have the worst of all worlds. They have the shortest careers, the least pay, the greatest health and safety risks, and the worst representation of any major players union in the country. To top it off, they had democracy robbed from them by their executive director.
Reed: What’s your plan, between now and the player reps meeting in March, for educating the player ranks?
Mehri: I’ve been doing outreach. I’ve sent the “Anti-Union Choices, Anti-Player Results” report to player leaders. I’ve visited with some player leaders. I’ve talked with some player leaders. The outreach is there and it will pickup after the season is complete.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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