The National Football League and the NFL Players Association are involved in negotiations for a new contract ahead of the 2019 football season, which kicks off Sept. 5. Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers’ star Melvin Gordon—two of the leagues’ best running backs—are currently holding out from training camp in an effort to improve their contracts.
Now a new organization calling itself the International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs has filed a petition with the federal labor board asking that running backs be severed from the Players Association and formed into a new union.
NFL running backs “have unique career structures; and the current one-size fits all unit is inappropriate,” the petition filed with the National Labor Relations Board said. The NLRB has not yet taken any action on assessing the validity of the petition.
Running backs play for an average of 2.6 years in the NFL, according to Vanderbilt University professor and sports economics researcher John Vrooman. Overall, NFL players usually last 3.8 years as professional athletes.
If the drive to sever the NFLPA into two unions were to gain traction, it would be sure to complicate the ongoing talks between the NFL and its players.
A number of running backs have voiced frustration within the NFL in recent years over what they say are contracts that don’t pay the players what they’re worth. All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, now with New York Jets, sat out the entire 2018 season rather than play for the Pittsburgh Steelers under a franchise tag that kept him from testing the free agent market.
“It’s a petition to sever a smaller unit,” said Veronica Patton, who identified herself as the executive director of the new brotherhood. No specific NFL players are involved in this push for creating a new union, Patton said.
An NFLPA representative said he was unaware of the new group and that the petition to create a union of running backs wasn’t carried out with the support of the players union.
‘Shaking the Branch’
Multiple NFL experts expressed doubt at the feasibility or seriousness of the attempt to move running backs to a standalone union.
The petition may be meant as more of a bargaining chip to force negotiators to make the collective bargaining agreement more friendly to running backs, they said.
“I can’t imagine that this is going to work,” said Michael Oriard, the author of several books on the NFL.
A separate union for running backs could weaken the NFLPA, said Cornell Law School professor Michael L. Huyghue. He previously worked for the NFL, the NFLPA, and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“You sacrifice so much when you do that,” Huyghue said, referring to the creation of a new union.
While a new union is unlikely, it could spur discussions at ongoing negotiations, the law professor said.
“Sometimes, shaking the branch gets something done more than the position that they’re in,” Huyghue said. “I don’t know that this will culminate in an actual splinter group but it may foster some more dialogue or make sure that some of those points get included in the new collective bargaining agreement.”
Running backs face a number of unique challenges that other NFL players don’t, according to sports agent Frank Salzano. He represents several NFL athletes, including Elliott, who is skipping Cowboys’ team practices while he negotiates his salary.
“The reality is they have short careers that are intense and they get beat up and they’re looked at as used goods quicker than other positions,” Salzano said. “You overlay that with the current CBA and if they can get tagged for seven years if you’re a first rounder, where do you ever test your value?”
The current contract allows some players to be held by teams up to seven years if a franchise tag is applied. The designation allows teams to prevent a player from becoming a free agent for one year, restricting them to that team. Each NFL team only gets one franchise tag to utilize.
Data compiled from Spotrac by Vrooman shows that NFL teams on average spend $8.8 million on running backs and fullbacks. That’s the least of any position other than kickers, punters, and long snappers.
“When I was playing and for many years after, the running backs were the highest paid players by position in the league and now, I believe, they’re among the lowest,” said Oriard, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs as an offensive lineman in the 1970s.
Out of Thin Air
There is no record that the International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs exists or has ever existed, except in the NLRB filing.
A search of Illinois incorporation records—where the organization is supposedly based—revealed no trace of the organization. There are also no records of the group on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website. All active unions in the United States are required to file paperwork with the DOL.
The lack of records could be due to the newness of the group or an understanding that the union wouldn’t be fully formed until the NLRB rules on the issue.
The Chicago regional office of the labor board now will carry out an investigation to determine whether the job functions of running backs are so different from other NFL players that they shouldn’t be included in the same bargaining unit. The regional director there can make a decision with or without a hearing on the matter.
The NFLPA already has intervened in the case, according to the NLRB docket.
—With assistance from Robert Iafolla