Today’s guest columnist is Teri Smith, acting COO of the NFL Players Association.
The NFL Players Association, with roughly 130 employees, is the labor union that advocates on behalf of active and former NFL players. Managing a diverse, service-oriented staff in a global pandemic presents its own set of challenges, but adding labor uncertainty, blatant racial injustice and a tense Presidential election—each playing out on TV, social media and around the world—has led to an important set of lessons.
During normal times—well, perhaps I should just refer to that time as pre-March 2020—our staff clearly understood our goals and what our individual and collective performance was measured against: service to the players. Our first order of business for the early part of last year was supporting negotiations to get the best possible terms out of a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL. During negotiations, our staff had to maintain its daily service to the membership, while also taking steps to prepare for a possible work stoppage. As negotiations became more public and contentious, our management team had to impress upon the staff a sense of calm, focusing on our jobs so that our player leadership could do theirs at the bargaining table.
In March 2020, as the Player Representatives deliberated over the proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement at our Board meeting, we began contingency planning in case COVID-19 were to make its way to Washington, D.C., and we needed to close the office temporarily. We reviewed every piece of data we could find and set up a test day for an emergency closure. We also began to take steps to review our technology capabilities so that our staff could serve the players remotely. We had no idea how the players would vote, how fast COVID-19 would spread, or how long we might be shut down. In the face of one of the most uncertain periods our union has ever seen, we had to follow the advice we were giving our players: #stayready.
The players voted to ratify the CBA, but we still had to adjust quickly and make difficult decisions about our operations. We instituted a salary and hiring freeze, delaying our normal staff cycle of staff reviews for what has now been seven months. We trained and retrained all of our staff members, especially the non-digital natives, on how to rely exclusively on technology for project management and collaboration.
Thanks to the creativity of one of our team members, we used technology to stay connected and boost morale, starting a “LifeAtHome” Slack channel that included staff-wide challenges, recipe exchanges and other virtual water-cooler banter. We ended up learning so much about each other and finding common interests that we never knew existed. We learned how to push the boundaries of creativity and collaboration through simple and consistent team-building exercises. Some teams instituted a weekly virtual trivia game and others setup virtual “brown bag” lunches, with no agenda, just to stay in touch. It helped keep us together in those early months, preparing us for the challenges we would face as a staff and as a nation in the summer.
In truth, like most organizations, we struggled for the first couple of months—the phone calls, Zoom/Teams video conferences and remote working felt insufficient. As the pandemic worsened, we accepted that our virtual office would be long-term and pressed our senior leadership to find ways that would best work for their departments. We learned that one method or system does not work for everyone. We became more adept at devising topics of interest for webinars, interactive panel discussions and in public spaces like social media that our players followed. At our most recent event, NFLPAU, we invested in an attractive platform, used gamification and chose notable “brand ambassadors” like Candace Parker, Deion Sanders and Cam Jordan to assist with our messaging. Finding different ways to connect with our members informed our operations and processes far beyond the success of the actual meeting or event, and while we were still in a strict cost-saving mode, we learned that in a service-oriented business, we had to invest in service to be effective.
Just as we were hitting our stride with working virtually, the country and the world reacted in horror to the murder of George Floyd. I was personally traumatized, but I also knew so many of our staff would be, too, and we had to act to support them. We called an officewide virtual meeting for the very next day so our staff could vent, discuss, cry or be silent, but it was important to our Human Resources team, and to me, that we did it together. Most of our staff joined the call, which was loosely facilitated by our HR Director and in-house wellness directors, to share their horror, frustration, anger and guilt at what had transpired, not only recently but for many years to people of color. Our staff is one of the most diverse there is for its size in any industry, much less sports, and the stories and emotions expressed that day were heartbreaking.
We came out of that day with a valuable lesson: Any staff is much stronger when we confront real-life issues together, particularly with candor and respect. Since that call, our union formed a social justice committee that works in tandem with the players, and we are proud to say that this committee has given younger staff members leadership and ownership to act on something they deeply care about. We also contracted with a professional counselor who has organized affinity groups on the basis of race, so that these important conversations may continue. We highlighted our mental health resources for all of our staff who may be struggling during this most stressful period.
The NFLPA is located in one the greatest cities in the world, and the past year has put our staff in the center of the biggest headlines, period. We are fortunate that despite the unrest, we have been able to rely on our core values to operate remotely, but effectively. Our experience has not been perfect, and the circumstances are still far from ideal, but as we approach the Super Bowl, our staff has continued to provide world-class service by learning important lessons about each other and the values of teamwork, flexibility and respect.
A graduate of Howard University and Columbia University School of Law, Teri Smith has been acting COO of the NFLPA since February of 2019, and has been the union’s deputy managing director and special counsel since 2009.