Eric Winston took a beating for five teams over the course of his 12-year N.F.L. career, and this little anecdote, honestly, could be about any of them. So set aside for a moment which team it was (it was the Arizona Cardinals, in 2013) and just close your eyes and picture Mr. Winston at his apex: 6-foot-7, 302 pounds, shoulders square and flat like a base camp at the foot of a sheer cliff to the top of his head, exhausted from smashing into things for hours, and lumbering into a training facility for his post-practice treatment.
Mr. Winston was lucky enough to be relatively healthy at the time. But it was the season he turned 30, on the down slope of his career as an offensive lineman, at a moment in National Football League history when the long-term cognitive damage that football can do was becoming more undeniable by the day. This was his job, and his body was his livelihood, and right now it really, really hurt.
Wanting only to let his muscles start their slow recovery for the next practice, Mr. Winston plunged into an ice bath. And then kept plunging. Even though he’s nearly seven feet tall on his tiptoes, he had to tread water because, for no discernible reason, the ice tubs were a baffling eight feet deep.
“You had to put a stool in it,” Mr. Winston said recently over lunch in Washington, D.C., near the headquarters of the N.F.L. Players Association, where he has a second job — a kind of pro bono side hustle — as union president. “Then you’d press it down because you were in the cold tub and you didn’t want to go all the way down. You had to submerge a stool to stand on.” Mr. Winston’s employer was a profit-sharing partner in a multibillion-dollar syndicate — one of the few truly risk-free ventures in American commerce. And it couldn’t be bothered to provide an ice tub that required no active effort to avoid drowning.
Mr. Winston, who turns 35 this month, is sturdily handsome in a Thanos kind of way, though less gloomy and better with a one-liner, and instead of infinity stones he’s pursuing an executive M.B.A. on weekends at the Wharton School of Business. He talks rapidly, but every word is enunciated, crystal clear and dense with information. Everyone contacted about Mr. Winston for this article said that they were sure he’d one day run for office, and that they look forward to voting for him. Some already have: In March, he was re-elected by the players, unanimously, to his third two-year term as union president.
Of the many challenges Mr. Winston faces, a meta one is this: a lack of sympathy for his constituents because they are assumed to be coddled millionaires. Hence his eagerness to point out that the work of an N.F.L. player is far from glamorous. In 2013, by the time Mr. Winston and his colleagues were pushing stools into ice water, trying to keep them from floating up and conking them in the face, the Cardinals’ facility was 23 years old. (The space got an upgrade after Mr. Winston left the team.) By now, rookies from major college programs — Texas A&M, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State — are routinely “taking a step down in facilities when they go to the pros,” Mr. Winston said.
“There’s some owners that look at that and say, ‘I’m going to invest in my team, I’m going to invest in my players,’” Mr. Winston said, citing the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and the Rooney family, which owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. “And then there’s some owners who look at it and say, ‘Eh. PB&Js for everybody.’” Mr. Winston spent just one year in Arizona, but he’d been around the league long enough to know that this sort of treatment was par for the course, and that was before he played for Cincinnati. (To be fair, he said, the Cardinals weren’t total cheapskates: “The team was nice enough to provide the stool.”)
Mr. Winston is an unusual Players Association boss because he is not currently on an N.F.L. roster — nor does he want to be. He’s done. He was planning to retire two summers ago, but in 2017, the Bengals brought him back for the final two months of the season, for which he earned the veteran minimum, $80,000 a game. At some point, Mr. Winston realized he was playing football mostly so he could keep doing the union job, the one his heart was really in.
His on-field career is over, but now he has 18 more months as a player emeritus to complete a lifetime of work and, perhaps more important, help the union gear up for a gathering holy war with ownership: the renegotiation of the N.F.L.’s current collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the 2020 season.
For Mr. Winston, it’s not a race to the finish. It’s an all-out sprint uphill. He represents the largest union of its kind, a Balkanized group of 2,000 headstrong men with a million divergent interests. He’s pitted against dozens of the richest, most secretive, best-organized people in American business — not to mention the president of the United States, who spent last autumn lobbing tweet grenades at N.F.L. players exercising free speech. And it’s all happening against the backdrop of a sport with so much built-in violence that parents and school districts are increasingly forbidding their children from playing it, a trend line that in theory could kill off the sport entirely.
‘It’s All About Control. Even More Than Money’
There’s a consensus among players that the deal they got in the last C.B.A. — which looked decent enough at the time — has not aged well, and management seems to agree: The owners keep talking about an “extension” of the current deal, as if everything’s hunky-dory. Meanwhile, Mr. Winston and the N.F.L.P.A.’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, 54, a labor lawyer who runs the union day-to-day, keep suggesting in public remarks that a work stoppage — either a lockout or a strike — is inevitable, using phrases like “Guys need to prepare to miss paychecks.”
Owners have heard such posturing before. It’s Mr. Winston’s job to make sure they believe it. And this time, things really are different. It’s no exaggeration to say that the tension between N.F.L. players and franchise owners is higher than it’s ever been, and it goes well beyond traditional labor conflicts and into issues of basic human worth. Too often, the players feel, owners must be dragged into treating them like they’re human beings, rather than glorified auto parts.
“Guys are fed up,” said Andrew Whitworth, an All Pro left tackle and Mr. Winston’s former teammate in Cincinnati, who now plays for the Los Angeles Rams. “The game right now — as strong as it is, as much money as is being made, and you’ve got a commissioner out there making the kind of money he’s making, guys are getting frustrated with how teams treat players in general sometimes. They’re getting tired of it.”
They’ve noticed that the training facilities are inferior, but the opioid painkillers are plentiful.
They’ve noticed the way front offices treat head coaches like demigods, but a player can get cut and never receive another penny if he sprains his ankle at the wrong time. Or how the ESPN analyst Jon Gruden can get a $100 million coaching contract from the Raiders and then, later, trade the N.F.L.’s most dominant defensive player, Khalil Mack, in order to save money. “The thing that made me laugh the hardest about that whole gong show,” said Mr. Winston, “was when they said Mack’s demands were too high.”
Players have noticed that Colin Kaepernick had his career destroyed because he knelt during the national anthem to protest race-based police brutality, while team owners can express bigotry and act repugnantly with something like impunity. The Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, for instance, may have lost his franchise last year, but not before he secured a legally binding promise that his statue would remain in front of the Panthers’ stadium in perpetuity.
Players noticed when the Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, Mr. Winston’s old boss, told a roomful of owners and N.F.L. executives gathered to address the Kaepernick controversy that players needed to knock off the kneeling because “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” And they really noticed when Mr. McNair, after first being pressured into a high-profile apology for the remark, made a much less public retraction of the apology a month later.
And players have noticed all kinds of tiny nuances in How Things Work that always seem to cut against players. Take, for instance, how all team employees get biweekly paychecks throughout the year — except players, who get checks only during the football season. The N.B.A. does not work this way; their players get paid twice a month, just like everyone else in the company. N.F.L. owners won’t change the arrangement.
“A billion-dollar corporation,” Mr. Winston said, “and you’re telling me accounting can’t figure it out?”
A press official for the league declined several requests for comment.
When trust breaks down, suspicion creeps into everything, and Mr. Winston sees malign intent even here. Most N.F.L. players, he pointed out, are young men in their early 20s, who often come from modest means, and don’t know how to budget. “Do you want your players saving money or not saving money?” he said. “Do you want your players needing to play football, or not needing to play football?”
“It’s all about control,” Mr. Winston added. “Even more than money, it’s always been control.”
Mr. Winston argues that this is clearest in the case of the ingeniously oxymoronic mechanism known as a “non-guaranteed contract.” In effect, teams can walk away from them at any time. The N.F.L. says they are necessary because of the injuries that are inevitable in football: If they had to keep paying every player who got hurt, they’d go broke. Few corporations in the world, though, are further from going broke than the N.F.L. And non-guaranteed contracts both force players to bear all of the risk and incentivize teams to operate with maximum brutality.
“There’s no responsibility for them to pay you what they said they were going to pay you,” Mr. Whitworth said. “There’s just something not right about that.”
Mr. Winston, who knows what a powder keg this issue is for both sides, is more circumspect about it. For one thing, he said, guaranteed contracts are not forbidden by the current C.B.A. It’s just been (again) How Things Work for so long that changing it is like getting the earth to reverse its rotation. Even so, players have made significant headway on it over the course of this C.B.A.; according to the players’ association, 386 players now have their contracts fully guaranteed and 300 more have nearly full guarantees. It’s nowhere close to the N.B.A.’s 100 percent, but it’s a marked improvement over 2011, when only top-tier quarterbacks could pull off such a demand.
For Mr. Winston, one of the keys to setting up a win in 2021 is making the case in public today that most N.F.L. players are getting a raw deal. He knows what most fans think: that pro athletes get to play a game for a living, and how dare they whine about that? He knows he needs to persuade fans to see pro athletes the way he does: as employees who go to work every day just like the rest of us, with crummy bosses and substandard workplaces and a power imbalance between labor and management.
It’s taken the N.F.L.P.A. years to get athletes to think of themselves that way, and Mr. Winston said he’s proud that the N.F.L.’s youngest stars are arriving in the league so much less benighted than in generations past. Each of the teams recently elected their player representatives to the union, and the new crop includes the top overall draft pick, Baker Mayfield; two rookie quarterbacks, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen; and the superstar running back Todd Gurley.
Just as it was during the last C.B.A. negotiation, the face of management is the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, who is, to put it mildly, not popular among players. Mr. Goodell has often described his job with a military metaphor: “protecting the shield,” a reference to the N.F.L.’s Captain America-style logo. But to the union, Mr. Goodell’s real job is using the shield to keep players a safe distance from the owners who pay his (guaranteed) $30 million salary.
What frustrates Mr. Winston is that, to fans, N.F.L. labor disputes are seen as a greedy fight between two comparably rich sides over who gets more of the pie — and that historically, the league has swayed most fans to side with owners in the name of team spirit. To Mr. Winston, those fans are wrong in a fundamental way: Including retired players, most N.F.L.ers are not rich, and won’t ever get rich from the game. Players drafted after the first two rounds each get the same basic contract: four years, non-guaranteed, escalating from a base salary of $480,000 in year one to $705,000 in year four. Sixty percent of the athletes in the league make the minimum salary.
The second contract is when players cash in. But that’s the thing about the N.F.L.: the one-two punch of inevitable injuries and non-guaranteed contracts means that most players never get to a second deal. The average N.F.L. career lasts just over three seasons, and players don’t see it as a coincidence that the standard initial term is set at four. (Nor that players don’t qualify for a pension until they complete the third game of their fourth season.) The typical rookie can expect to make around $1.4 million before he’s done, and before agents and accountants take their cut. Then he’s out of football and unemployed by the time he’s 25.
A League of Rabid Capitalists
Mr. Winston has gotten rich playing football, with more than $20 million in career earnings. But he’s always been the type to speak his mind, and he’s always been practical and meticulous. His father was a school vice principal in Midland, Tex., and his mother was a nurse. “Both very hard-working, didn’t have a ton, both very detailed-oriented,” he said. “You come from modest upbringings, and you kind of keep track of things.”
The players union is not the S.E.I.U., and Eric Winston is not football’s Che Guevara. The N.F.L. is a league filled on all fronts with rabid capitalists, and Mr. Winston, who studied international finance in college at the University of Miami, is certainly one of them. He doesn’t think teams should be forbidden from cutting players; he doesn’t think issues like guaranteed contracts are morally or economically cut-and-dried. He doesn’t even think all of the team owners are terrible; Mr. Kraft in particular, he said, is a reasonable person and a model for respectful labor relations.
Mr. Kraft has a reputation for being among the league’s most progressive owners. He has donated large sums to the cause of criminal justice reform, and he played a key role in helping the rapper Meek Mill get out of prison. But his age (77) and net worth (Forbes puts it at $6.6 billion) mean he approaches the league’s labor issues from a rather different perspective than its 20- and 30-something players.
In an interview, Mr. Kraft praised Mr. Winston’s even-handedness as a counterpart, but lamented that “sometimes you can run into players who are focused solely on short-term decisions. Almost like football coaches, you know — they want to win and that’s all they care about.” Owners, meanwhile, “want what’s good for the game long-term. I mean, our family is in this long-term.” A multigenerational investment perspective is not available to, say, a 23-year-old running back drafted in the fourth round.
Mr. Kraft has a clear grasp, though, on why the Kaepernick issue still looms large for so many players and how urgent it is for the league to resolve it. “Let me say this: I would very much like to see him in the league,” he said.
One unconfirmed media report in mid-September claimed that his team had engaged in discussions with Mr. Kaepernick, ultimately fruitless, to back up quarterback Tom Brady. In the interview, Mr. Kraft called the report a “rumor” that had originated with a lawyer in Kaepernick’s camp, but when asked if that meant the report was untrue, he paused for three seconds. “I’m done talking about it,” he said finally. (Mr. Kaepernick and his lawyer, Mark Geragos, did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Kaepernick dispute is, at root, a labor issue, one Mr. Winston would like to see resolved before he steps aside in 2020, though he’s not holding his breath. In the meantime, he said, it just gets added to the growing list of corrosive incidents that are eating through players’ trust for their bosses like battery acid. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it, because it’s like, ‘Listen, you want us to sit down and do a deal and figure this out — but the last eight years, you want us just to forget about?’” Mr. Winston shook his head. “That isn’t the way it works. That’s not human nature.”
Any politician worth his lapel pin doesn’t just choose the hills he’s willing to die on; he also wants to make sure he gets credit for the work he’s already done. Mr. Winston’s biggest wins have come on things that seem small, but that chip away at this culture of control and take some back for the players. After lunch, back at the N.F.L.P.A. headquarters, he reflected on the gains that make him proudest: financial literacy training for rookies, a roster of league-verified money managers, more investment in training facilities, improved post-retirement medical care.
But it’s what he does with these last few months that could make the most lasting impact, as the players’ union positions itself for the most consequential fight of its existence. When Mr. Winston took over in 2013, he said, he expected to be a peacetime leader. Then came “Deflategate,” then Adrian Peterson’s child-abuse case, then Mr. Kaepernick, then President Trump, then Jerry Richardson and Robert McNair. “Boom, boom, boom, boom,” Mr. Winston said.
“I always thought of myself as a bridge between two C.B.A.s,” he continued, “because I never expected to play this long. Now here I am. And I want to finish it the right way.”
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