When J.C. Tretter ’13 arrived at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 2009, he was a freshman tight end who had aspirations of going to law school and becoming a sports agent. Four years later, he left Cornell –– his destination, the NFL draft.
While Tretter’s trajectory was not what he expected when he made his way to Ithaca, the Cleveland Browns center has found a way to merge his football career with the labor relations part of his education at ILR.
Tretter took office as president of the NFL Players Association last March as the union was voting on the most recent collective bargaining agreement with the league. A week after the new collective bargaining agreement –– which expanded the playoffs and gave players a higher share of league revenue –– passed narrowly, Tretter and the union turned their attention to the emerging pandemic.
“We had to think about if we should have a season and if we do, how we should have a season,” Tretter said. “We had to negotiate with the league over a virtual off-season to protect bonus money tied to off-season participation. After that we had to figure out how to safely have a season.”
To deal with the unique challenges of organizing a football season during a pandemic, Tretter turned to his former classmates and professors for advice.
“I’ve contacted classmates who work with other unions to pick their brains and look at things through different lenses,” Tretter said. “That’s the amazing thing about Cornell, you meet amazing people who go on to do great things in their fields and it’s a built-in resource that’s been fun to take advantage of.”
Using his education on collective bargaining, Tretter fought to ensure safety protections for players and to win key concessions from the league.
“COVID has forced us to innovate and change. We have to discuss how to make our league better as a whole,” Tretter said. “Player safety isn’t just a player issue. It’s a team issue. It’s a fan issue. We all want to see players healthy and out there on Sundays.”
Tretter got involved with the Player’s Association after joining the Cleveland Browns, following four seasons with the Green Bay Packers. After spending his first NFL season recovering from a broken leg, Tretter didn’t fully adjust to the league until he arrived in Cleveland.
“Once I moved as a free agent to Cleveland, I felt like I was a more established player, so that’s when I decided to run for player rep,” Tretter said. “The same process went into my decision to run for president of the union.”
As for Tretter’s next steps, he wants to continue to use his ILR skills after his playing career ends.
“I think I still have several more years to play, but it’s definitely coming to that time in a guy’s career where they start thinking about what they want to do once football is no longer a possibility,” Tretter said. “It’s really been a joy to pull back on that ILR experience, so it’s definitely something I would consider doing long term.”