Domonique Foxworth enters firestorm as new NFLPA president

WASHINGTON -- Domonique Foxworth turned 29 two months ago, and is less than three months into his term as NFL Players Association president.

With the experience he's gotten in that time, those months might as well have been years.

What was expected to be a time of peace on the labor front has brought plenty of tumult -- from the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" scandal, to the individual player appeals in that case, to the ongoing concussion issue, to salary cap problems, to, most recently, a collusion lawsuit filed by the union against the NFL. Even something as seemingly benign as a mandate on thigh and knee pads has stoked the vitriol.

In the middle of it is Foxworth, the former member of the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons. He hasn't yet ruled out returning to football, but acknowledges that after knee surgery last year and hip surgery five weeks ago, the decision on his future as a player might not be his alone.

So Foxworth's focus is on the union now, as he moves into a role that's been made increasingly complex by an endlessly thorny landscape.

Last July's accord on a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement only temporarily mended fences. Today, the relationship between the sides is in disrepair, as it was during the lockout.

"There are always going to be situations where our interests don't align and we're going to fight tooth and nail. And we respect each other afterwards in those situations," Foxworth said in a private moment on the eighth floor of NFLPA headquarters Thursday. "It's unfortunate, because I think we made up quite a bit of ground in the latest CBA in bringing them to our position and them moving us to their position or close to their position in some ways. ...

"There is a history -- or a recent history -- of some better relationships and better communication, and I respect the guys in that (NFL) office and I hope that we can continue to move in that way. But one thing we will never stop doing is (standing our ground). When there are issues where we feel our players have been wronged or been shorted, we're going to stand up for them."

And never was that more clear than on Wednesday, when the union filed the collusion lawsuit.

The players' allegation is that the league imposed a secret $123 million salary cap on clubs, and the subsequent penalties against the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints were for violations of those limitations. The league asserted there was no such collusion, that any such charge would not be admissible in court due to the settlements of last summer, and that the players signed off on the clubs' penalties in the "reallocation letter" that set the salary cap for 2012.

The case could get ugly. It could be costly for both sides. But Foxworth reiterated that the important thing here, again, was that the union take up the case for its members.

"I just want to find out the important pieces to this puzzle and find out if it is true," Foxworth said. "We believe it to be true and we're going to go forward with this case. It's a lot of money and opportunity that has been taken from our players, and that's our role here at the players association, is to protect our players' interest in all situations."

If the players' motivation on that issue seems fairly cut-and-dried, the union's role in the Saints' case is much murkier. The NFLPA has had to tread carefully in order to balance player safety and the rights of individuals who feel wronged.

"Our mantra for much of the time I've been in the league and much of the time I've been a part of this players association has just been that we want to know the facts," he said. "We talked about opening the books during the CBA negotiations. So this is just the same type of thing -- we want to be equal partners. We want to understand what's going on in front and behind the curtain. It's just only fair."

And while the NFLPA has filed grievances on behalf of the Saints players, and supported their position publicly, there was a limit as to how far it would go.

Last week, Jonathan Vilma, suspended for a year for his hand in the bounty program and presence as a Saints captain during that time, filed a defamation lawsuit against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The union wasn't part of the suit, but Foxworth understands what Vilma is doing, adding the caveat that evidence could change his stance on this lawsuit, as well as the entire situation.

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"I understand where Jonathan is coming from, and had my name been attached to something like that, I'd like to get some retribution in that case also," he said. "While we're not his attorney and not representing him in that case, we stand behind him, if that's the way that he wants to go on that. It's more important for us to understand this due process.

"And I've had this conversation with each of the guys that were accused, and a lot of guys around the league, is that our union stands behind the health and safety of our players, and if there is evidence that proves players were motivated to intentionally injure players, then I won't stand in the way of any type of repercussions. All I'm asking for, all we all want, is just due process and real evidence. And to see this process through in the right and more American fashion."

Clearly, there's plenty for Foxworth and the union to accomplish as the NFL calendar moves into one of its slow periods.

And the NFLPA president doesn't deny that an improved relationship with league officials would help. He also understands that now, in his position, he, Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith have a significant role in maintaining that relationship.

"I think all three of us, in particular, do a good job of communicating," Foxworth said. "I think that moves it in the right direction. But there are going to be some areas where it's just in their best interest to do one thing and it's in our best interest to do another. I don't think any of us are under the illusion that at some point, it's just going to be a smooth road. But it's a great business that we have, it's a great game that so many people love, and that's important."

So maybe in the months to come, there will be change. If Foxworth's short time as president has taught him anything, it's that things are always fluid.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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