Adolpho Birch III saw it all from concussions to Colin Kaepernick’s fight for racial justice during two decades at the NFL’s New York headquarters.
Birch left the Big Apple behind this summer just in time for the NFL’s 2020 season to become chief legal officer and senior vice president of business affairs for the Tennessee Titans. His new team fell just one game short of the Super Bowl last season after they lost 35-24 to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game.
The move to Nashville is a homecoming of sorts for Birch, who grew up in the city, the son of a trailblazing Black Tennessee lawyer. The late A.A. Birch Jr. was the first Black chief jurist on Tennessee’s Supreme Court and the only person ever to serve in every level of the state’s judiciary, including working as a public defender and a prosecutor, Birch noted.
“That to me represents the fullness of his accomplishments and what he was able to do and the examples he was able to set while I was growing up,” said Birch, who spoke to Bloomberg Law from the press box at Nashville’s 69,000-seat Nissan Stadium, where he was monitoring the installation of plexiglass partitions now necessary in many workplaces across the U.S. due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Seeking Social Justice
Birch’s new job with the Titans came shortly before the Vanderbilt University Law School graduate was appointed chair of an ad hoc board of trustees committee at Vanderbilt focused on crafting policies related to equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Those issues are also now playing out in the NFL arena.
“The league is doing a commendable effort of learning, listening, and growing,” Birch said. “There are things people understand now that they might not have understood a few years ago. There are people willing to express their opinions and make sure their voices are heard.”
He praised NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for supporting players, the majority of whom are Black, and credited players for pursuing various initiatives with owners of the league’s 32 teams.
So, should Kaepernick, a quarterback-turned-activist whose name was linked to the Titans this summer, be on an NFL team roster?
“I won’t express an opinion on that, but I believe the issues he talked about and advocated for are quite important and everybody sees that,” said Birch, who during his 23 years in the NFL’s front office served as a senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs.
Long Road Home
Birch said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to the city where he grew up and “be a part of a team that’s on the rise.”
He left Nashville in the early 1990s and moved to Houston to work as an associate at Fulbright & Jaworski, now part of Norton Rose Fulbright. He then spent three years at another local firm, roles that put him in contact with those moving what was then the NFL’s Houston Oilers to Tennessee.
A job with the team, whose ownership adopted the Titans name after relocating in 1997, didn’t pan out. But it did help him land a labor relations counsel position with the league itself. Over the years, Birch came to know those running the Titans.
The franchise needed a new legal chief earlier this year after promoting Birch’s predecessor, Burke Nihill, to president and CEO in May. The new role for Nihill, who joined the club as general counsel in 2016 after working in-house at VMware Inc. and OfficeMax Inc., saw him succeed longtime Titans president and former Houston lawyer Steve Underwood.
Underwood’s retirement went viral due to his unique mustache, facial hair that appeared to inspire a sports-deprived nation coping with coronavirus-related lockdowns. Birch has no plans to grow a mustache to match Underwood—“That’s Steve’s calling card and I love him for it,” he said —but he does want to absorb some of his executive leadership duties.
Nihill, as CEO, will focus on the “overall strategy and mission of the organization,” Birch said, while he handles “bigger picture” decisions on the legal side and government affairs work. The Titans have hired a new general counsel in Daniel Werly, a former associate at Foley & Lardner and Drinker Biddle & Reath who most recently served as legal chief for Major League Soccer’s Nashville expansion club.
The Titans beat out several rivals over Labor Day weekend by signing star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year, $15 million contract. Birch gave credit for that deal to the team’s general manager, Jon Robinson, and vice president of football administration Vincent Marino.
Birch will be in Denver on Sept. 14 when the Titans open their season against the Broncos. He’ll then return to the Nashville, where the Titans will have no fans in the stands this month but could be allowed to have roughly 15,000 in attendance come October. Like much of 2020, it’s a fluid situation, but one that Birch said could end better than last year’s crushing loss to the Chiefs.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said.