When the Alliance of American Football abruptly collapsed in April 2019, many players were left stranded.
Stuck in road game cities, their contracts had been terminated. There would be no severance pay or continuation of benefits.
The downfall of the XFL a year later was less tumultuous if only because the COVID-19 pandemic had already suspended the season. But the league’s bankruptcy meant the same outcome: Players would no longer be paid and would need to find other jobs.
AAF and XFL players lacked a collective voice. Each player, injured or healthy, was left to fend for himself. Some had agents, but many did not. Finding new housing, filing for unemployment benefits, determining workers’ comp eligibility, obtaining health care insurance and assessing possible legal claims against a now-former employer were among tasks that players—some with families—had to quickly confront.
Enter the United Football Players Association.
Organized by former American AAF, CFL and XFL players, the UFPA is a new 501(c)(4) nonprofit that champions the interests of players who aren’t represented by the National Football League Players Association. While most football leagues have paused operations during the pandemic, the UFPA envisions a more secure framework for players once games resume.
To that end, the UFPA intends to press leagues for greater transparency in how they operate and are financed. The organization seeks specific workplace benefits, including higher pay, better living arrangements, improved practice facility conditions, greater weightlifting and training opportunities and sensible frameworks for name, image and likeness matters. The UFPA also eyes influence over how game rules are constructed and how they impact players’ health and well-being.
Kenneth Farrow II is one of the UFPA’s leaders. A running back who has played in the NFL, AAF and XFL, Farrow, 27, stresses the need for players to gain basic protections.
“We’ve learned a lot from what went wrong with the AAF and XFL,” Farrow maintains. The former San Antonio Commanders star recalls fellow AAF players having to pay for their own flights home and incurring other out-of-pocket costs when their league folded.
“That kind of stuff shouldn’t happen. Our organization will be there to fight for players.”
To be clear, the UFPA isn’t a union. It isn’t authorized by the National Labor Relations Board to collectively bargain hours, wages and other workplace conditions. Unlike players in the NFL, who are automatically members of the NFLPA, players in alternative football leagues can’t use the UFPA to go on strike or make labor demands. As a 501(c)(4) entity under the Internal Revenue Code, the UFPA is a social welfare organization. This means it uses advocacy and education to further the common good of pro football players.
That’s not to say the UFPA can’t play an instrumental role in advancing players’ interests. Some leagues are organized as single entities, meaning the league owns all the teams and employs all the players, coaches and staff. This was true of the AAF and is true of the XFL, which was owned by Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment and is now owned by a group headlined by former WWE star Dwayne “The Rock’’ Johnson, businessperson Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital CEO Gerry Cardinale. A single-entity model is advantageous for antitrust law purposes. It allows the league to restrict salaries, inhibit free agency and adopt other measures that might otherwise run afoul of the law. As an association, UFPA could meet with league officials and raise awareness of player concerns.
Don Povia, the founder and president of Transition Sports & Entertainment, is a key advisor to the UFPA. He highlights NCAA data for the 2019 NFL draft showing there were 16,380 draft eligible players. Only 3.8% of draft-eligible DI players were drafted, which (of course) doesn’t guarantee making a team. These numbers track other seasons. While some undrafted free agents earn roster and practice squad jobs, thousands of talented players are shut out of the NFL every year.
Some of these overlooked players, Povia observes, “will begin in a league like the XFL and work their way to the NFL.” Meanwhile, some players will begin in the NFL but later play in another league. Povia stresses that “players who aren’t in the NFL generally aren’t protected by an organized representation—this is where we come in.”
Povia also sees delays caused by the pandemic as potentially advantageous. The XFL, for example, is set to resume play in 2022. Povia says the postponements “give us more time” to communicate with league leaders and advocate for policies.
The UFPA’s emergence comes on the heels of NBA G League players unionizing in July.