Richard Berthelsen spent 40 years with the NFLPA, fighting for player rights. Perhaps the biggest win for the NFLPA was free agency, allowing players to choose where they want to play instead of the owners having basically all of the power.
He shares how he fell into the job working with Ed Garvey, one of the biggest influencers to the players at the beginning. Richard’s journey for 40 years gave him perspective, as he was often leading the charge helping set up the strikes and in the courtrooms. See the timeline below for more about the history of Richard Berthelsen and the NFLPA.
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Richard graduates from University of Wisconsin Law School in 1969 He then started to get some experience in the real world working in law. It didn’t take long before his old pal, Ed Garvey, would come knocking on his door.
Ed Garvey played a major role at the beginning of the NFLPA, as discussed in the John Mackey vs. NFL – NFLPA Through the 60s and 70s episode. Richard joined the NFLPA in 1972 for what he thought was only going to be a few years. He figured he would go to work for a few years, win free agency for the players, and then ultimately move onto something else. Let’s just say it didn’t quite go down like that. Richard was about to answer the question of “what does the NFLPA stand for?”
Richard found himself answering this question and helping build the foundation for the fight for player rights for the next 40 years. In the episode, Richard alludes to how much the NFLPA has grown over the years, because his initial letter of employment had so many hats that “each paragraph is now an entire department.”
One of his first major responsibilities was to head up the NFL’s group licensing program, which is responsible for letting us purchase our authenticated jerseys, helmets, and so much more.
What Did I Get Myself Into?
After Richard realized it was going be more than just a “few years,” he put his nose to the ground and continued to work towards the ultimate goal of free agency, even though it was still about 20 years off. Another one of his initial roles was to plan the Association’s first player convention.
This included getting information to all the players. He was also tasked with prepping for the upcoming 1974 collective bargaining agreement.
When it came to negotiating, Richard served on the committee to get the players closer to what they were looking for. One of his tasks was also assisting the formation of the picket lines at every one of the 26 NFL team training camps. The strike started in July of 1974, but overall it didn’t go the way the players were hoping for.
There was no agreement, and Richard ultimately had to represent the NFLPA in six weeks of hearings in front of the National Labor Relations Board based on the premise of unfair labor practices.
John Mackey to the Rescue
The following year the NFLA took up a new hero, John Mackey. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee and was named the NFL 100 team this past year, so his on the field performance needs no introduction.
Richard worked during the trial and appeal process during one of the most important cases in NFLPA history, the John Mackey case. This case lasted for quite some time and finally was settled during the Spring of 1977, because the Eight Circuit Court gave the victory to the players.
It took about 3 years to get the 1974 CBA completed, but it was worth it, because the players were another step toward the goal of free agency.
The Strike Decade
The 1980s are often a decade when people wonder “what is the NFLPA?” This decade was again critical for the advancement of free agency, most notably 3 events occurred.
1982 – A 57 day strike was launched. Richard’s role during this was helping negotiate a settlement in November that gave “at the time” benefits the players had never seen before.
1983 – Gene Upshaw was elected as Executive Director and he appointed Richard as the NFLPA General Counsel. The new Batman and Robin would end up working together for years to come as a thorn in the side for NFL owners.
1987 – This was known as the “Scab Season.” Episode 59, The NFL Scab Season | NFLPA Through The 80s dives a little deeper into the subject if you would like to check it out.
1989 – The players lost in the courts, and in this episode, Richard calls this the “darkest days of the NFLPA.” It was unanimous among the player reps and the NFLPA reps to have the players renounce the NFLPA, essentially decertifying as a union. The reason for this is a union could not represent the players filing grievances under the Anti-Trust Laws. You can read more here about Anti-Trust laws for how they work.
Free Agency on the Horizon
The first plan of attack for Richard and his team were to select a player with enough clout and willingness to stand up to the NFL owners. They selected Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, along with other players, to take the case to court. In what was ultimately dubbed “Freeman McNeil, et al v. NFL,” Richard and his team filed an antitrust suit against the owners.
It took some time, but the players won, which led to a settlement including the coveted prize Richard thought he was going to secure within a few years at the NFLPA. They won free agency for the players, and there were many other benefits included in the settlement.
A Lost Hero of the NFLPA
In 2008, Executive Director, Gene Upshaw suddenly passed away from pancreatic cancer. Richard was unanimously selected to fill the role until they could find a suitable replacement. He helped lead the search, which ended with the selection of DeMaurice Smith in 2009. De Smith and Richard hit the ground again, because there was a 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement to prepare for.
Just like the late 80s, the player reps had to renounce the NFLPA and the union bargaining again, because the players locked the players out in 2011. It was a close one, as the settlement didn’t come until August, meaning less than a month until the opening of the season. Then 10 years later, exactly 40 years to the date, Richard hung up his “lawyer cleats” for the NFLPA by retiring on May 15, 2012.
Now he spends his time still on the Board of Directors of NFL Player’s Inc. and the Board of Advisors for the NFLPA Financial Advisors Program.
Credit – Most of this information beyond the interview was gathered from the NFLPA’s website – 60 Heroes: The NFLPA’s Trusted Legal Counsel