NFL Running Backs Could Break from Players’ Union

On August 9, 2019, a group called the International Brotherhood of Professional Running Backs (IBPRB) filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) asking that NFL running backs be severed from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and formed into a new union.

According to the IBPRB, NFL running backs “have unique career structures; and the current one-size fits all [approach to players contracts] is inappropriate.” The petition looms over the ongoing talks between the NFLPA and the NFL over a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The current CBA, created in 2011 and set to expire after the 2020 NFL season, created many restrictions on rookie contracts that particularly affect running backs. Notably, the 2011 CBA agreement created the “franchise tag” which gave NFL teams up to seven years to prevent players from becoming free agents.

This system has a particular impact on running backs. According to Vanderbilt University professor and sports economics researcher John Vrooman, running backs play for an average of 2.6 years in the NFL, while other positions play an average 3.8 years. According to Frank Salzano, sports agent for NFL star running back Ezekiel Elliott, “The reality is they have short careers that are intense and they get beat up and they’re looked at as used goods quicker than other positions.” According to Salzano, running backs never get the opportunity to test the free agency market and sign the largest contracts of their careers. Further, data shows that NFL teams on average spend $8.8 million on running backs and fullbacks, which is the lowest of any position other than kickers, punters, and long snappers.

The petition by the IBPRB is not unprecedented. Many notable running backs have voiced their frustration with the current contract scheme. For example, Le’Veon Bell, now a running back with the New York Jets, sat out the entire 2018 season rather than play under a franchise tag that kept him from testing the free agent market. Further, Melvin Gordon, a running back with the Los Angeles Chargers, is currently holding out from the 2019 NFL season in an effort to improve his contract.

The IBPRB petition to “sever a smaller unit,” in theory, would allow it to address the problems that uniquely face running backs. If the drive to sever the NFLPA into two unions were to gain traction, it would be sure to complicate the ongoing talks between the NFL and its players. The NLRB has not yet taken any action on assessing the validity of the petition.

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