Potential NFL Running Back Union? Lessons To Be Learned from Derrick Henry And Other Top RBs As They Discuss Feeling Devalued In Their Positions

Recently, star Tennessee Titans Running Back, Derrick Henry, admitted to forming a group chat linking all of the top NFL running backs together to discuss long-held sentiments of feeling devalued in their positions as running backs in the League. 

Henry formed the group chat after learning that 3 of his fellow running backs, Saquon Barkley, New York Giants; Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders; and Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys – all arguably some of the best players on their teams – failed to receive long-term contracts. Quite notably, Jacobs led the NFL with 1,653 rushing yards; Barkley ran a career-high 1,312 yards and finished third place as NFL Comeback Player of the Year; and Pollard was named to his first Pro Bowl after running a career-high 1,007 yards and 12 total touch downs.

Although they are among the top running backs in the league – each finishing with a stellar season – their respective teams failed to offer a long-term deal and were instead offered a “franchise tag,” which is a one-year contract.

Admittedly, there are pros and cons to franchise tags; however, they are often viewed as less than ideal because in the event of an untimely injury, players are less likely to be able to reach a long-term deal once the one-year contract ends. Additionally, the franchise tag running backs offered is amongst the lowest paid in the league.

In fact, the only positions offered a lower franchise tag are kickers and punters. 

“We Just Want Our Shared Due”

Adding fuel to the fire – after hearing the news that Jacobs, Barkley, and Pollard would be franchise-tagged, a well-known sports analyst argued that running backs should not even be allowed to re-sign after getting franchise-tagged even once.  In response, Derrick Henry formed a group chat linking all of the top NFL running backs stating, “I’m with every RB (running back) that’s fighting to get what they deserve.”

A few weeks later, he spoke at a press conference passionately declaring, “there’s been times where the running back sometimes touches the ball more than the quarterback.  Just trying to show that we are valuable as any other position.” Henry also stated, “We just want our shared due,” declaring they want “to be together as a movement to improve the situation.”

The Need for a Separate Union?

Currently, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) is the labor union that represents all professional football players in any NFL position, and there is no separate union for NFL running backs. However, for years now the growing sentiment has been running backs are not fairly compensated and are not adequately valued on their teams. 

In fact, a few years ago, efforts were even made to file a petition with the National Labors Relations Board to create a separate union for NFL running backs. 

What will come of Derrick Henry’s efforts?  Is the formation of a separate NFL running back union on the horizon?  Although the future remains to be seen, a separate NFL running back union is unlikely, given the current NFLPA collective bargaining agreement does not expire for another approximately 6 ½ years. 

Key Takeaway for Employers

Even though the formation of a separate NFL running back union is unlikely for the time being, there are important steps employers can take to help their employees feel more valued in their positions.

  • Check in with employees and listen to their concerns;
  • Offer a rewards-based compensation plan to reward employees for their hard work;
  • Offer flexible work hours or flexible work locations, if possible;
  • Prioritize a healthy work-life balance;
  • Offer opportunities for career-advancement
  • Improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace

Erica Johnson is an associate at FordHarrison.

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