April 17, 2007

Blakemore Picks Brain of Buck Briggs ’76 of NFL Management

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The start of the NFL regular season may be 142 days away, but America never stops consuming football. Recently suspensions have propelled themselves into the headlines casting aside the NHL Playoffs, the Masters and even the start of the Major League Baseball season — we just can never get enough football.

In light of the recent news, I sat down to chat with Buck Briggs ’76, assistant general council to the NFL Management Council, to discuss the good (Kevin Boothe ’05), the bad (Pacman Jones) and everything in between. Here is what transpired:

Let’s start with the obligatory Pacman Jones question. Was the suspension too lenient, too strict or just right? And will it result in improved off-field conduct for all players?
Our new commissioner [Roger Goodell] recognized, quite appropriately, that as far as the football consuming public is concerned the behavioral issues have leapt into the forefront. I used to bump into people on the street, and they would say “oh that was a great Super Bowl” or “how is Eli Manning doing.” Questions related to the game. But in a very short time — within the last year — the majority of the questions now deal with behavioral issues. Now that the season is over, [Goodell] is really focusing on what he thinks to be a critical issue. He listens to the owners, he listens to the fans, he listens to the other players and [Executive Director of NFLPA] Gene Upshaw. As a result of weighing all these factors and all these influences, he feels that a statement like this about Jones and Henry is necessary in order to address issues that need to be addressed with these particular players and to send a message out to the other players, to the teams, and to the fans. It has been widely applauded as being appropriate and I agree, given some of the perceptions out there, this is the way to go.

With a multi-billion dollar industry such as the NFL, where each player is constantly under an enormous microscope, should we hold players to a higher standard of conduct than the rest of society? Can we still consider athletes role models?
Whether they should or should not be role models needs to be addressed in each particular family. I know growing up that I had athletes that I looked up to very much. Fortunately I had a father and a mother and an extended family that looked for much more guidance than athletes. The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, [athletes] are role models to millions of people out there whether they are five year old kids or fifty year old adults, and the product is inextricably wrapped around issues such as player behavior. The popularity of the NFL revolves around the product that is put out on the field, but also the public perception of the game. … I think it is thoroughly appropriate that they owe an obligation to the game to behave in a manner that we may not see appropriate for people in other walks of life.

Back when you began in this industry in 1980, you worked on the other side of the line, as a lawyer for the Player’s Association. Now on the other side, how has your perspective changed and how has the game changed in general?
One of the primary ways the game has changed is — with regard to free agency and the wage cap — players need to produce more quickly. Back in the days before free agency, a quarterback could take two or three years to develop under the tutelage of a veteran quarterback. Given the absence of free agency you could experience the benefit of having that player on your team for a significant amount of time after he “matured.” The necessity of hit the ground running, hit the ground producing is now reality. In some instances, given the complexity of the game, given the physical maturity of some athletes coming out of college, that period of time to ripen as an athlete isn’t there.
I was very young when I started working for the player’s side back in 1980 and now at 52 and working on the management side, part of the perception is age and part is jumping the fence. I think a lot of the changes we see in football are similar to the changes we see elsewhere in society, as far as the focus of the media, as far as the attention given to the product, as far as the ability to have to be on all the time, on and off the field. The relentless scrutiny that everything that happens on and off the field is subject to has really put a lot more pressure on everyone involved in NFL. It has been an evolution from game to sport to high pressure, high octane business.

The NFL is the most popular sport in the U.S., and it doesn’t look like it will relinquish that title any time in the near future. However, as it continues to grow, do you worry that it may become a product of its own success and suffer certain problems that may seem currently inconceivable?
The game is the game, and it’s a wonderful game; it lends itself perfectly to television; attendance has just about topped out; we have a wonderful relationship with our media partners. The quote, “We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us” is definitely relevant, however … and Commissioner Goodell is tremendously attentive to this. We have a product that we have produced well; we have a great relationship with the player’s union; on one simplistic level, you think you just have to keep going, but that in and of itself isn’t that simple; that is why his scrutiny is on some of these behavior issues, and anything else that could potentially knock the product off the straight course that we have been on.

The current coverage of the NFL is mind boggling; America just can’t get seem to get enough. Is there anything else the NFL and its partners can do to try to satisfy this somewhat insatiable desire the fans have to have around the clock, all access coverage?
I think the product is still being consumed at this time of year. ESPN, for example, wouldn’t be putting that much football related material out there if they didn’t feel that people wanted to watch it. There is an argument to be made that the next big step is the internationalization of the product. We have NFL Europe, there is a regular season game in Europe this year. We will see if the overseas market is there. Is there more product to be consumed in the US? That remains to be seen … but we seem to have hit that sweet spot.

The NFL has recently increased its Performance Based Pay fund to over 100 million dollars with the purpose of rewarding lower salaried players for contributions to their team. Cornell’s Kevin Boothe ’05 was one of the largest beneficiaries of this system a year ago. Are you in favor of the system and do you see it expanding to a larger scale in the near future?
Kevin is a wonderful guy and a great friend, and I couldn’t be happier for him. It certainly worked out for Kevin. I think it’s a development that makes sense in a lot of sports, and I think that Kevin would probably be a good case study for it. … Under this Performance Based Pay provision, which we have had in existence for three or four years now, players whose compensation is comparatively low, who go out and get a lot of playing time can be compensated through this pool of money. Given Kevin’s spot in the draft and the fact that he was a starter for the majority of the season, he got a nice check at the end of the season. There are some people that think it makes a whole lot of sense as a scheme to be used league wide in football and other sports. It is a system that is not without its own problems, but I think there are many people out there who would like to see at least a larger portion of player salary be done in this way.

You have a few jobs that seem to require you to maintain a certain level of objectivity surrounding the game of football. Do your roles as lawyer and as color man on the radio broadcast for Cornell football intensify your interest in the game itself or do you try to maintain a neutral perspective when you watch on any given Sunday?
I love baseball; I have been to 51 MLB stadiums, and I’ve been able to maintain my love for baseball because I am not involved in it. I am unsullied by too much of the realities of what is going on behind the scenes. When I watch a football game, there is just a little bit too much knowledge. “Oh there’s that player there, I had to cross-examine him a few weeks ago in a grievance,” ”here’s a player that is just coming off suspension for whatever reason,” “the G.M. of that team and I had an awkward discussion with him last week” and “there is a coach on the sideline who I had a good relationship with when I was on the union side and now I am on the management side.” There are so many different influences coming at me from very different sources; it is very difficult for me to just watch the game as a fan, as much as I try to hit the off-switch and just enjoy this game like every other person does, you just know too much about all the interrelationships between and among the various participants. … With regard to my radio work for Cornell football, I love that tremendously because I can sort just put things in neutral and say this is great and I love it. These guys are not professionals; they aren’t going to hold out. I love it; I go to 10 games every fall. There is a certain purity to it that doesn’t exist at the professional level. The skill level at the professional level is just so off-the-charts, I like to enjoy it for that aspect but try to divorce it from all these business issues that run through my head Monday through Friday.

You also teach a class at the law school on sports litigation, which one of these many jobs is your favorite?
It keeps me busy. The NFL stuff is my bread and butter, and what can you say, it’s a dream job to be involved on a daily basis in making the decisions that really dictate the operations of the most popular sport in the United States. There is pressure, it is work. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on decisions that you make. The teaching I absolutely love. With each year, I think can I do this again this year because it is such a time commitment, but it compliments the other job. Especially when you teach sports law, people are going to show up knowing what’s going on. I love the story telling aspect of it; I love imparting information that emanates from my experience in it; I love the fact that it keeps you on edge. This isn’t like teaching Chaucer; you don’t just dust off last year’s notes. It helps me with my NFL job. And then the radio job I just love. If there are any of my jobs that I regard as absolutely fun and relaxing, that is it. When I come driving up Buffalo street on a Saturday, knowing that I am going to see my friends that I have been doing this with for thirty years, it is a feeling that I really can’t describe. It is like none that I get from my other jobs and other activities. In the wonderful times I’ve had over the last 35 years, Cornell has just become part of me.