60 Heroes: The NFLPA’s Trusted Legal Counsel
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1969, Richard Berthelsen joined the NFLPA staff in 1972 as its first in-house counsel. His initial duties also included the NFLPA’s group licensing program, planning the Association’s first league-wide convention and gathering salary and other economic information in preparation for collective bargaining in 1974.
Berthelsen then served on the NFLPA’s negotiating committee in 1974 and helped set up picket lines at all 26 NFL training camps when the strike started in July of that year. After the strike failed to produce a new agreement, he represented the NFLPA in six weeks of hearings before the National Labor Relations Board that arose from numerous unfair labor practices by the owners during the strike.
Berthelsen also assisted during the trial and appeal of the John Mackey case in 1975-76 and helped negotiate a settlement in the spring of 1977 after the Eighth Circuit Court ruled in the players’ favor. That settlement brought an end to the players’ three-year fight for a new CBA as well as payment of more than $15 million in damages for players affected by the illegal Rozelle Rule.
Berthelsen was also inside counsel for the NFLPA negotiating team in 1982, when the players waged a 57-day strike to gain a guaranteed percentage of gross revenues. He helped negotiate a settlement to that strike in November of 1982, which brought unprecedented benefits to the players. The system he developed regarding new player regulation to the Player Reps in 1983 has since become the model used in all four major sports.
After Gene Upshaw took over as Executive Director in 1983, he appointed Berthelsen as NFLPA General Counsel and the two worked closely to prepare for the next negotiation in 1987, when free agency again became the main goal. After the owners scarred the game by using “replacements” to break a four-week strike by the players in 1987, Berthelsen helped convince Upshaw to end the strike and file an antitrust lawsuit challenging the owners’ continuation of rules that restricted free agents.
After a loss in the courts, Player Reps renounced the NFLPA’s union status in 1989 and Berthelsen recruited Freeman McNeil of the Jets along with several other players to serve as named plaintiffs in a new antitrust lawsuit against the owners. The case became known as Freeman McNeil, et al v. NFL, and it resulted in a sweeping victory for the players in 1992, when a jury ruled that the NFL had violated the antitrust laws and had to pay damages to the affected players, leading to a settlement that allowed for free agency and a guaranteed percentage of future gross revenues to the players.
In August 2008, after Gene Upshaw’s death from pancreatic cancer, the NFLPA Executive Committee unanimously elected Berthelsen as acting Executive Director of the NFLPA.
After De Smith was elected the new Executive Director in March of 2009, Berthelsen returned to his position of General Counsel and continued to serve as a member of the NFLPA bargaining team for the 2011 negotiations, when the owners locked out the players and the Player Reps again had to renounce the union’s bargaining rights to challenge the owners’ conduct in antitrust court. A settlement was eventually reached in August, and Berthelsen retired 10 months later on May 15, 2012, exactly 40 years after his first day on the job in 1972.
In his retirement, Berthelsen still serves on the Board of Directors of the NFLPA’s licensing subsidiary—NFL Players Inc.--and on the Board of Advisors for the NFLPA Financial Advisors Program.