On March 15, the NFL Players Association will open its annual meetings in Maui. The sessions are the Super Bowl of its business calendar because it's the only time this year that the executive committee and the player representatives from each team will get together.
The weeklong event will feature a review of past practices and a discussion of strategies for future business, among other things. Yet for all the importance of the talks, people within the union will tell you that their less-publicized and much smaller meetings two months ago in Southern California were equally important.
Those sessions took place in conference rooms at a Long Beach hotel that served as headquarters for the 2016 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. There, union officials brought in nearly two dozen young NFL players and educated them about the role and the importance of the union.
The meetings were part of the NFLPA's push to enlighten -- and thus empower -- its members, be it one by one, dozen by dozen, or locker room by locker room. In a league with a player workforce that turns over every four years on average, the union wants players to see football as a business and not just a game. It wants them to take control of their tomorrows by understanding what's happening to them today. And the best way to do that is by getting out the message as early as possible in the players' careers.
"The thing that hurts my spirit is when I talk to a guy, and he thinks that somehow the union is hiding something like, 'What are you doing with my dues, with my fine money?'" said Don Davis, senior director of player affairs and development for the NFLPA. "I hate just the fact that he has that sour taste in his mouth, without really understanding what's going on. Then if he says it loud enough, a rookie or a young guy is sitting next to him, and he doesn't know anything, but now those words are in his head. Then I come at [the rookie] and he's looking at me like, 'What are you talking about?' That's why we have to expose them to things like that."
Davis speaks from experience. He played linebacker for the Saints, Buccaneers, Rams and Patriots before retiring in 2007 after 11 years and 148 games. "The union?" he said. "My mind was like, 'Oh, OK. That's the union. Where's my [royalty] check?' My first four years, I had no idea what a union was and what it did. Then, Year 5, I spent time under a rep. And in Year 6, I was voted in as a rep. I also was voted in as a rep during all my years in New England."
The experience was eye-opening. He soon realized all the ways the union could help him while playing and while retired. The hope now is to educate young players as quickly as possible. Bringing the players to Long Beach was one way of doing that. The union flew in 21 active players, including 15 rookies.
"My perception of the union was that they were just taking money out of our checks to take it, not knowing it's going to causes that look out for my best interest," Raiders punter Marquette King said at the time. "But now I have a better understanding about my job -- kind of how the business works. Players aren't really thinking about it. Players are focused on trying to be the best they can be on the field. At the end of the day, if you don't think about this stuff, then, if something happens, you'll be clueless about how to deal with it. We need to grow up a little bit more. We have to make sure we look out for our futures."
Jets free-agent linebacker Demario Davis added: "Learning full scope of what's involved is interesting for me. I'm a fan of social reform, so to learn the nuts and bolts of what it takes to make change is fascinating. Many players don't even understand. They've been playing a game their whole life, then they're drafted into a business, into a Fortune 500 company, and they don't realize that they have to take responsibility for their future. Ignorance isn't bliss. The NFL does a good job of keeping them in limbo about the business of football, just like a parent sending a kid to school and the kid doesn't know why he's there. Guys come into the league thinking the NFL and the NFLPA are the same thing. They wonder why they're paying dues.
"Some guys don't even pay attention when they're voting for a player rep, but I've come to learn this is one of the biggest decisions you're going to make as a player. You need a guy who's looking out for everybody. There's a socialization that's needed. He has to help guys learn to think long term. In the NFL, it takes five years to change a generation and 10 years to change a landscape, meaning those who come after you."
Such comments make Don Davis smile. The iceberg of ignorance is melting. The push to educate is gaining traction.
"My hope is to get everybody to understand and realize that we have taken our organization to the next level with the pieces we've put in place and the things that we've done -- the vision and strategy that we have in place," said Davis, who has been with the union since 2010 and was promoted into his current role this past June. "I want them to have a sense of the pride that those of us who played the game have who are now working at the NFLPA. I know I'm the leader I am today because of the people who poured what they know into me.
"If we can get to them earlier, we put a value ad into their mind early. We create an innate value. There is the potential of us bringing them in and letting them know even more: 'This is you, it's your union. It's only going to be as strong as you want it to be. I'm personally invested in who's next.'"
The union is even seeking to get its message to college and high school athletes by being able to reach parents.
"We just want to create an awareness that there are services and programs that we do," Davis said. "The awareness leads to an activation to be a leader, to be involved. Even if you're not a player rep, you need to know what's affecting you and the future generations behind you. We just want to keep putting tentacles into them so they can take control of the things that impact them."