Under Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA kept its head in the sand regarding the concussion crisis. Under DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA largely has kept a sock in its mouth regarding the NFLPA under Gene Upshaw.
The strongest (and only significant) comments came in 2009, when Smith addressed Congress on concussions only months after getting the job: “For far too long, our former players were left adrift; as I emphasized at the last hearing, we were complicit in the lack of leadership and accountability, but that ends now. I am here again to make it clear that our commitment is unwavering.”
The NFLPA had said nothing publicly about the League of Denial documentary, which inexplicably failed to mention the role — or even the existence — of the NFLPA.
On Saturday, the union broke its silence via on-the-record comments from NFLPA spokesman George Atallah.
“We have received some questions about the lack of examination of the NFLPA’s role in the film, and we understand why those questions came up,” Atallah said. “However, in the labor management construct that is as old as the labor movement in America itself, business owners are obligated to the workplace safety standards established by the law. This includes, in particular, the responsibility to be transparent about the risks associated with working certain jobs and being held accountable to all relevant health and safety regulations. A coal miner, for example, is not and should not be responsible for ensuring his workplace is safe or for mitigating the medical risks associated with his job. That is and should be the owner’s responsibility.”
Atallah is right, but when the players are represented by a union and the union has direct involvement in: (1) the disability board that linked football and brain injuries years before the NFL took brain injuries seriously; and (2) the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (which apparently emphasized the “Mild” and ignored the “Traumatic), the union has access to the league’s alleged shenanigans and the ability to push back against the NFL — or at a minimum to call them out publicly or through available legal channels.
Under Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA possibly had the same concerns about its long-term viability, influence, and assets as the league did. Acknowledging the truth about head injuries means threatening the game, which in turn threatens both the league and the union.
While it’s predictable that the NFLPA would throw as much blame on the league as possible and politically prudent to not take posthumous shots at Upshaw, Smith already has admitted that the union was “complicit in the lack of leadership and accountability.”
It would have made for an intriguing angle in League of Denial. But the producers apparently were in as much denial about the NFLPA’s role in the problem as the league was in allowing it to exist.