The Most Powerful Legal Organization In Sports That You May Have Never Heard Of

May 31, 2024

By Christopher Deubert, Senior Writer

The NFL is an American sports colossus, gathering fans, television ratings, and revenues at prodigious rates. That growth relies in large part on the league’s relations with its players. And, in turn, that relationship relies on the National Football League Management Council, an organization not well known in the public.

As explained in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), Management Council is “the sole and exclusive bargaining representative of present and future employer member Clubs of the National Football League.” In this role, for decades, Management Council has operated much like a law firm within the league structure, with its exclusive focus on legal issues between the NFL and its clubs on one hand and players on the other. In the process, it has produced countless attorneys across the sports industry and developed a reputation of prestige and influence within the sports law community.

A History of Labor Disputes

The NFL and its players have a long history of not getting along. In the 1970s, players in baseball, basketball, and hockey had secured rights to meaningful free agency through litigation and collective bargaining. When the collective bargaining agreement expired in 1982, NFL players went on strike for 57 days in an effort to obtain the same rights. However, they ultimately settled for improved salaries and benefits.

The expiration of that agreement in 1987 marked a dramatic and litigious turning point in NFL labor relations. Over the next six years, the players and the NFL and its clubs engaged in a series of lawsuits concerning the league’s restrictions on player movement. After a series of wins by the players, those lawsuits ended in 1993 with a class action settlement that ushered in proper free agency and paid over $100 million in damages to players.

That settlement served as the core of a new collective bargaining agreement, the general structure of which has held ever since, including through more litigation in 2011 and a related league lockout before the parties reached a new agreement.

Management Council’s Role

It may surprise some to learn that the NFL is not, itself, a legal entity – it’s not a corporation or limited liability company or anything of that nature. Instead, it is an unincorporated association, a grouping of 32 individual legal entities (the member clubs), who have come together and agreed to operate the NFL. This agreement is memorialized in the NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws.

To be clear, NFL clubs have created a variety of collective legal entities for purposes of conducting various parts of the league’s business. Most notably, NFL Properties LLC is responsible for the joint selling of clubs’ intellectual property. In 2010, in the American Needle case, the Supreme Court held that this joint venture structure did not immunize clubs from antitrust scrutiny.

Management Council too is an unincorporated association. It was formed by NFL clubs, through the processes of the Constitution and Bylaws, for the purposes of engaging in collective bargaining negotiations with the NFLPA and then administering and enforcing the terms of the resultant agreement. Similar to the NFL, Management Council has Articles of Association and Bylaws which govern and direct its conduct.

The first NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement was executed in 1968. While that agreement does not reference the Management Council, the cover of the 1970 agreement specifically declares it to be between Management Council and the NFLPA. It thus appears likely that Management Council was formed around this time for the purposes which it continues to serve to this day.

When not negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, Management Council is responsible for the day-to-day enforcement of the existing one. It represents the NFL and its clubs in the dozens of grievances filed each year by players, acts as the prosecutor for the league’s personal conduct, illegal substances, and performance-enhancing drug policies, and reviews player contracts for compliance with salary cap and other rules. Essentially any issue that touches on the player-club relationship is within Management Council’s purview.

Management Council’s Legal Influence

Some organizations are sufficiently prominent that their formal names get abbreviated in professional conversation. Law firms with lengthy multi-name titles frequently get shortened to just the first name in their title.  One may also hear a lawyer discussing a stint at “Justice,” meaning the United States Department of Justice. Like Beyonce and Madonna before her, shorthand popularly used names evidence notoriety and prestige.

In the somewhat insular world of sports and the law, “Management Council” has developed a comparable reputation.  The shorthand phrase is frequently used both in discussions about goings on in the NFL and the careers of attorneys who have come from its ranks.

Indeed, Management Council’s alumni are formidable. For years, its alumni have regularly moved on to work as in-house counsel or salary cap experts for clubs in the NFL. Many have gone on to become prominent attorneys working in other sports leagues, at law firms, private businesses, or in the government. Management Council’s internship program has similarly included top talent and is among the most sought after in sports.

Management Council’s relationship to the Sports Lawyers Association (SLA) is also important. The SLA is the preeminent organization attorneys working in the sports industry and those that aspire to. Dennis Curran, a Management Council attorney from 1980 until a recent retirement, was a long-time SLA Board Member and fostered a culture through which many Management Council attorneys attended the annual SLA Conference, spreading their influence and legal positions.  Curran was replaced as Management Council General Counsel by Larry Ferazani, a former FBI Special Agent and state and federal prosecutor.

Lastly, Management Council is very much intertwined with the law firms of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and Covington & Burling LLP. Akin Gump, led by Partner Dan Nash, has been the NFL’s chief labor and employment counsel for decades. Covington & Burling has been the NFL’s chief outside counsel for about 70 years, particularly on player-related antitrust matters. Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue worked there as did current NFL General Counsel Jeff Pash. Many interns, summer associates, and practicing attorneys have gone from one of these firms to Management Council or vice versa. The result has been a virtuous cycle of highly capable attorneys well-trained on the legal documents and positions important to professional sports leagues and teams.

While Major League Baseball has a Labor Relations Department (formerly known as the Player Relations Committee), that performs much the same role as Management Council, it lacks the heft, focus, and gravitas of Management Council. The NFL significantly outpaces the other leagues both in terms of revenue and profit. It stands to reason then that it would have personnel to match, both in terms of quantity and specificity. Simply put, Management Council has unrivaled reach, capability, and influence in the sports legal community.

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