The president of the NFL Players Association strongly refuted claims that players were left without a voice in Tuesday night's re-election of executive director DeMaurice Smith because of changes to the selection process.
Eric Winston said the board of player representatives voted in March 2015 to create a committee to research what could be a better election process. The committee was then instructed to report its finding to the board the following year, at which time any recommendations would be discussed and voted on.
"When the committee presented its findings to the board, we had probably a 45-minute to an hour debate over exactly what the thresholds should be," Winston said to ESPN.com. "Things were asked like, 'Should the vote have to be unanimous at the selection committee level? Should it be a majority or a supermajority at the board level if it gets to Phase 2?'
"It wasn't just, 'The committee submitted something and everybody ratified it,' Winston said. "This was a long debate that played out because we had an arcane process that came to be two-and-half years ago. The changes were something that guys were very passionate about and believed in; they believed we were going to set something up that could carry the union forward for a long time in terms of succession plans."
The previous process allowed anyone to run if he or she were nominated by three player reps. That made for a circus-like atmosphere in March 2015 when there were nine candidates, including at least one internal employee who came forward at the 11th hour.
Hoping to avoid such confusion and drama going forward, the board approved a new, potential three-step process the following year:
(1) A 14-member selection committee evaluates the job performance of the sitting executive director, then votes on whether to extend that person's contract for a new three-year term. If the person receives 14 "yes" votes, the "election" is over. However ...
(2) If the candidate receives anything short of unanimous support, his candidacy is forwarded to the 32-member board of player reps for discussion and a vote. Twenty-four (or two-thirds) "yes" votes and the election is over. Anything less and ...
(3) A search firm hired by the union will present the board with a group of candidates to consider.
Cyrus Mehri, a prominent Washington attorney, had announced plans to run against Smith before learning of changes to the selection process. On Wednesday he issued a statement that said, in part: "The NFLPA Executive Director serves at the pleasure of the players. A critical component of the job is ensuring that the players have a voice in their own economic and non-economic interests, and, in turn, in choosing who represents their interests. Yet, in the closed election process that rubber stamped DeMaurice Smith, the fate of 2,100 NFL players was decided without allowing the player leadership to so much as hear directly from an alternative."
Said Winston: "This isn't a public office. This isn't something that you run for. This isn't mayor of the PA. This is an executive position at a union, at a company. It's something that we take very seriously. These members of the board are elected by their teammates to go and make tough decisions. These guys are always consulting guys at the team level, and they're getting regular reports of the committee's progress, because a lot of guys were on the committee. So it's disingenuous to say, 'Oh, nobody knew what was going on.' All of the board members knew what was going on, and the selection committee knew what was going on. The board voted overwhelmingly for this process. ... I understand that [Mehri] might have been confused and not understood the rules of the game he was trying to win, but at the end of the day, this is not something you run for. The group felt like there was no reason to give him a platform while the question at hand was, 'Do we want to extend the sitting executive director?' That's it."
Smith was voted into office in 2009, following the death of longtime executive director Gene Upshaw. This marks the third time he has been re-elected.
"This didn't just happen last night," Winston said. "We didn't hop on a phone call and talk about how we feel and take a vote. This has happened over the long term with the executive committee and now the selection committee. We had phone calls during the summer with the selection committee, obviously making sure that they had information as far as self-evaluations and evaluations of De. Guys looked at that and said, 'This is the position we're in, this is the position we want to be in, and this is the guy that is going to help take us there.'
"We had heard the criticism from our guys from the previous process two-and-a-half years ago. They were OK with the idea of what we were trying to do, of not only customizing the process but also looking toward the other unions that have similar processes. The big debates came through the threshold process. One of the big points with the board was, 'Hey, listen. We're going to empower you guys because we believe you guys know the most. A lot of you guys are on the executive committee.'"
Although the changes were approved in March 2016, they can be changed if a resolution is made at the annual meeting and two-thirds of the player reps vote in favor of it. Mehri said he hopes to see change in the future.
"One of the things I've had the pleasure of doing in my professional life is fighting closed processes like this," Mehri said. "It's a disservice to everyone involved, including in this instance the 2,100 players. Once you have blinders on and you're not casting a wide net, you don't know if you have the best candidate."
"We're always going to look to fine-tune things," Winston said. "This is not something that was set in stone by me -- or especially by De. He was sitting in the corner in the back of the room; he stays out of the resolutions, for good reason. But if there's a player that's unhappy about it, he can come to the meeting himself or tell his rep that this is a resolution I want you to put up. That's how change happens. It's a democratic organization."