UCOMM Exclusive Q&A: NFLPA President JC Tretter
UCOMM sits down with the new President to discuss his vision to unite players union
On March 10th Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter was elected President of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). Tretter graduated from Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations (ILR) before going onto the NFL, where he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round of the draft. As Tretter takes over, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has been approved and he will now have ten years of labor peace. UCOMM’s Kris LaGrange sat down with Tretter to talk to him about taking over the union.
LaGrange: What did your parents do?
My mom worked as a school administrator, my dad worked as a VP of a trucking company, so probably the opposite side of the bargaining table.
LaGrange: Playing youth football in the Buffalo region as a young boy – when did you realize that becoming a professional football player was an attainable goal?
I grew up in Akron NY, which was a really small town. I played in their little league football league. I then stayed in Akron for High School. I was in a 120-person graduating class. So a very small town.
LaGrange: What other sports did you play?
I played football and basketball and I enjoyed them both. Honestly, growing up I was probably a bigger fan of playing basketball I just stopped growing at 6'4" and that kind of tapped me out of my chances of playing basketball at the next level. I always was really into sports and had a lot of fun playing. It was something that I always wanted to do and luckily things kept progressing and I was lucky enough to play in college. Things continued to progress and I got a chance in the NFL.
LaGrange: Now you were a quarterback?
I was a high school quarterback, so there was plenty of growth between Senior year of high school and where I am now.
LaGrange: You didn’t look like a center taking snaps from another center?
No, I was the same height but was 6'4" 230 lbs. I played tight end for my first two years in college. I then moved to left tackle for my last two years of college and then have played center in the NFL since.
LaGrange: Cornell isn’t an easy school to get into. Were you always a nerd, did you always have great grades in school?
I always had good grades in school. My sister is actually two years older than me, she went to Cornell as well, so I got to spend two years together with her. I’ve had three uncles also go to Cornell so it has had a family connection. I always put a priority on getting the best education. Obviously, Cornell is not the clear path to the NFL. I didn’t go there thinking the next logical step was playing professional football. I went there because it was an opportunity to continue playing football, playing a sport that I loved as well as get a world-class education.
LaGrange: In high school and college what were your favorite subjects?
I enjoyed social studies and math. They were probably my favorite; I was never a big science guy.
LaGrange: A lot of other labor leaders go to the ILR as night school, but you went to Cornell’s ILR (the Harvard of the Union Movement) for undergrad. Did you think that you were going to get a career in industrial labor management if you weren’t going to go to the pros? Where were you looking if you weren’t drafted by the NFL?
The original plan was I was going to go to law school, which is the other side of the ILR school. The ILR School is a path to law school as well as a path into union leadership. The major gets you split down the middle. Early on you take a lot of classes revolving around both. You get a good background in both and then as you get older you can kind of take whatever classes you are really into and tailor your undergrad bachelor’s into whatever side you want to go. I stayed right down the middle, continuing to take union classes and continuing to take law classes. The original plan was that I wanted to be a sports agent. I was going to get my law degree and then become an agent.
LaGrange: Did you ever hear of the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute or were they recruiting you to become one of them?
No, I never got that far. Once junior year hit, and I moved to the offensive line, that’s when I started getting a feeling that I might have a chance at the next level. Once senior year came around, I knew that it would at least take up some time after I graduated. So, the job hunt kind of took a pause and I went into preparing for that opportunity.
LaGrange: What is the NFLPA doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Everyone is taking it day by day, week by week. If you go back and rewind to a week ago, people would be thinking that we would be watching the first round of March Madness right now. It’s just crazy how much has changed and how quickly things have changed. I think you have to be capable of making tough decisions in a short amount of time. Right now, we have put a pause on it, we are trying to keep people away from the facilities. We are following the CDC guidelines of keeping groups to less than ten people. Obviously, new guidelines are coming down. California just passed its own kind of standard. A lot of it is going with the flow of what we are looking for and what the government and medical professionals think is best at this time.
LaGrange: The union isn’t laying anyone off?
No, we meet, and we talk and a lot of it is a balance between doing what’s best for our players and the general population. This is something that everyone needs to buy into and make the right decisions for your neighbors and family members. It is something that unless we all get behind the solution, we are just going to continue to have the problem.
LaGrange: Do you find as a player’s rep and now President that your members might avoid you because it is so mundane talking about bread and butter issues like a collective bargaining agreement?
I don’t think guys will avoid me. It’s an understanding of what guys are looking for and how involved they are going to get. The more involved the stronger the union is. It’s always a conversation, but we are kind of in a weird field in the football world. There is such turnover and the careers are so short that there is a constant revolving door. Keeping people updated and making sure people understand the issues is more of the focus. How do we keep the guys that are continuing to rotate into this workforce updated on what we are doing and what we are trying to do? They have their own focus on making the most of their careers and it is a delicate balance. It is something that we are always working on. Keeping guys educated on what we are doing and what we are doing for the game of football. We have meetings at the facility, we have player directors that come to the facilities during certain times each year. We meet as a full team, just the players, and take guys to dinner. We have meetings in the offseason where we fly them down and get them more involved. So, I think we do a pretty good job of providing them opportunities but it is about reaching out, giving them more options that they feel comfortable getting involved in.
LaGrange: Is that how you got involved? Did you see this and approach a rep to ask how to get more involved?
We have elections for player's reps every two years. You hold a vote and elect a new player's rep for your team. That was two years ago. We will have another election this year. Some guys will be reps again, there are some who have been reps for their team for 6-8 years and that is always great. There is such high turnover though that you need to continually elect new reps because guys will be traded or released and move on. New guys come in and take their place so it is always that battle of keeping guys informed and educated because not only is the membership constantly rotating but the reps who are responsible for disseminating the information to the members are always rotating and changing as well.
LaGrange: When did you know that being the NFLPA President was going to be a reality? Was it a goal of yours when you entered the league?
It became a reality when the election results were read. It is a true honor and you do it because you love the work and want to help football players. I thought it was a really good fit for me, obviously with my background in school. Its kind of a rare combination to go to a school like Cornell and study Industrial Labor Relations and then have a chance to be a part of the NFLPA. I thought it was a really neat fit, but it’s more about being passionate about helping the players. The past, present, and future players, and trying to get our union in a position to help those guys at all times.
LaGrange: You and your team were able to negotiate a contract that greatly improved the lives of 60% of your members, not superstars, but guys that only regular fans know. Do you think you will be able to take that momentum and turn them into great unionists?
I think one-off wins won’t do the job of keeping someone engaged long term. I think right now on both sides we have a lot of passion about what our work rules are, what are the finances of football and it has become so much at the forefront with the CBA negotiations going on. A lot of people are talking about it and I think that we need to segway in, keep players involved and keep people feeling heard. I think that’s the way we keep members involved more. We are always fighting for what we think is best for our guys and not just chopping off segments and saying we are going to help this 60 %. We want to be doing more to help the entire game of football, the entire 100% of the membership. Hopefully, guys are excited about the benefits we got them in the CBA now, but the work is never done and there is more we need to do to keep guys involved and interested.
LaGrange: What are your plans to bring the Yes and No votes together on a common cause?
First an education platform. We want to make sure everyone understands this whole thing, making sure they understand what is going to go on, work rules will be changing this year and the finances of football will be changing this year. We want to get everyone up to date on what that is going to look like with this new deal. People have been living under the past CBA for about 9 years so this will be a drastic change and getting guys that information right away.
Then it’s about bringing people together. Getting the guys that voted no to still feel heard and understanding that our works not done. The things that they wanted and the reasons why they thought this was a deal we shouldn’t take; we are still going to fight for. The work is always going on. A lot of it is having really clear communication with the membership.
LaGrange: You have 10 years of labor peace, what are you going to do to make this union better?
I think it is touching on all of the things we touched on. Making those guys feel heard. So much can be done in a CBA that changes the way the work rules work and how the money gets split, but those changes can still happen in the middle of a CBA. It’s not as easy but we can still work to make changes to help 100% of the membership. I think grinding those new ideas out and making sure that we are always working to help the guys. After that, I think it is coming together and being stronger. I have been impressed with the amount of interest the guys have taken in this last two-three months as the deal has gotten to the end where we are voting on it. People have gotten really involved. I think taking that involvement and segwaying it into the future and bringing more along is only going to make us stronger in the next ten years.