By Christopher R. Deubert, Senior Writer
The NFL Players Association’s (NFLPA) Board of Player Representatives will reportedly be meeting in June to consider and potentially vote on a new Executive Director to replace DeMaurice Smith, who has held the position since March 2009. No candidate has been publicly identified and thus what follows is an educated guess at possible candidates for the position.
First, it is helpful to revisit the process by which Smith initially obtained the position. The position was left vacant by the unexpected death of Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame player who had led the union since 1983. The front runners for the position were Troy Vincent, a retired star player who had served as President of the NFLPA from 2004 to 2008, and David Cornwell, a prominent attorney who had represented professional athletes in a variety of matters. Smith, then a partner at a major D.C. law firm, had no prior experience with NFL matters but won over the players during the interview process.
With that history in mind, let us consider some potential candidates.
David Cornwell – Cornwell was the most qualified candidate in 2009 and thus merits consideration again. He has bounced around among various large law firms and his own practice. He has continued to remain involved in various sports matters, and even consulted with the NFL for a period of time, where he started his career. Nevertheless, age and health concerns may impede his candidacy.
Troy Vincent – After losing out in 2009, Vincent surprised the football world by accepting a position with the NFL. Since then, he has risen to the role of Executive Vice President of Football Operations, one of the league’s leading executives. He nonetheless at times has promoted a player’s perspective within the league and undoubtedly is well-qualified for the role.
Current NFLPA Employees
Tom DePaso – The NFLPA’s current General Counsel has been a lawyer with the NFLPA since 1984, after a brief NFL playing career. His experience and institutional knowledge is unmatched internally.
Teri Smith – Currently the NFLPA’s Chief Operating Officer, Smith has been with the union in some capacity since 2009. She has led union efforts on various sensitive matters and is well-regarded in sports legal circles. She would be the NFLPA’s first female head, after the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) has recently had back-to-back female Executive Directors.
Don Davis – Davis is a Senior Director at the NFLPA and a Senior Advisor to the Executive Director, having been with the union since 2010. Prior to joining the NFLPA, Davis had a four-year playing career and coached for five years.
Domonique Foxworth – Foxworth had a six-year playing career during which he rose to the level of NFLPA President. When his career ended in 2011, he remained with the PA until 2014 and at one time was considered a protégé of Smith. After a brief stint with the NBPA, he has been a commentator on ESPN since 2016. Foxworth was a prominent presence during the 2011 CBA negotiations and related litigation.
Matt Schaub – Schaub was an NFL quarterback for 17 seasons from 2004-20 and a player representative to the union during his career. He has publicly stated his desire for the position.
Eric Winston – Winston was an NFL lineman from 2006 to 2017 and NFLPA President from 2014 to 2020. He was with the union during both of the last two labor negotiations and thus possesses the best institutional knowledge of any recently retired player.
Anthony Gonzalez – After a four-year NFL career following a standout college career at Ohio State, Gonzalez served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican representing Ohio. Gonzalez opted not to seek reelection after criticizing former President Trump and voting in favor of his impeachment.
David Feher – Feher is a Partner at Winston & Strawn LLP and co-chair of its Sports Law Practice. Feher is a protégé of Jeffrey Kessler, one of the most prominent sports litigators and attorneys of all-time. At Winston & Strawn and prior firms, Feher has served as outside counsel to the NFLPA and NBPA on all their CBA negotiations and related litigation for the last 30 years.
There are likely other candidates in addition to the above. Former player Kellen Winslow, Sr. and sports attorney Andrew Brandt have both been mentioned. The process has thus far been impressively secretive. The ultimate choice will be interesting for sure and perhaps surprising, just as it was in 2009. Then the hard work begins. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to a sign an extension that keeps him in the job through the 2027 season. The current collective bargaining agreement does not expire until March 2031. Consequently, there will be plenty of time for the new Executive Director to develop a relationship with Goodell and the NFL and plot a path toward a new agreement while preparing for the possibility of a work stoppage and litigation.
Deubert is Senior Counsel at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete LLP.