NFL Players' Union Investigating Claims of Misconduct Made Against Senior Official

The NFLPA is looking into claims that a top executive was "toxic" and "abusive." Sources described an environment in which women struggled; the union rejects these claims.
NFLPA logo

The NFL Players Association—the powerful union representing National Football League players—has confirmed to Motherboard that it is investigating a wide-ranging set of allegations against Ira Fishman, the organization’s managing director, former chief operating officer, and longtime de facto no. 2 leader.

On February 14, an anonymous whistleblower sent a letter to, among others, the union’s executive committee, which is made up of current and former players. The letter, reviewed by Motherboard, described Fishman as “toxic” and “abusive” and accused him of, among other things, subjecting employees—especially women—to bizarre and inappropriate remarks, throwing used chewing tobacco around, and cursing during meetings.

Advertisement

“Despite the anonymous, unverified and unsettling allegations contained in the email, we took the immediate step of hiring outside counsel to conduct an investigation led by our COO Teri Smith,” the NFLPA wrote in response to a detailed inquiry from Motherboard directly asking about every allegation raised in this article.

The letter also alleged that the NFLPA, including executive director DeMaurice Smith, was well aware of the misconduct. (In response, the NFLPA said, “There is no formal record of claims against Ira and nothing in his file or anyone else’s matches up to the claims made in the email.” The NFLPA did not make Fishman available to Motherboard because he is the subject of an investigation. It spoke on his behalf.)

Do you work or have you worked at the NFLPA? We’d love to talk to you. You can reach Lauren Gurley at lauren.gurley@vice.com or securely on Signal (201)-897-2109. Anna Merlan can be reached at anna.merlan@vice.com and Tim Marchman can be reached at tim.marchman@vice.com; they can both be reached securely on Signal at (267)-713-9832.

More than a half-dozen current and former NFLPA employees, who spoke to Motherboard on condition of anonymity because they fear professional reprisals, described behavior that mirrored the letter’s allegations and confirmed many of its particulars. They told Motherboard that they directly witnessed Fishman making belittling or inappropriate remarks to women who worked under him. They also said that Fishman’s behavior affected the day-to-day work environment for female employees: Women said they instant messaged each other from their desks to avoid running into him as he roamed the halls. One expressed a lack of interest in a substantial promotion because, one person remembered her saying, “It would mean more Ira in my life.”

Advertisement

Fishman, these people said, seemed to revel in others’ embarrassment. He would fart and belch in meetings, and shoot his used chewing tobacco into trash cans like a basketball, so that it would spatter on others. He became known for using a master key to enter locked offices. And his drinking was the stuff of legend: During a meeting ahead of the completion of the NFL’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement, sources said, Fishman got drunk and got into an argument with Smith in front of at least one player that was so loud people present were astonished he kept his job. 

(“Our senior leadership team is constantly engaged in difficult, stressful and serious decision making about issues which will impact players past, present and future. Mr. Smith encourages dissent as part of making tough decisions,” the NFLPA wrote when asked about the incident.)

Few people reached by Motherboard seemed surprised to hear from us. “I always felt like a story would come out during the Me Too movement,” one said. Fishman is not accused of sexual abuse; multiple people told Motherboard, though, that what they described as a pervasive old boy’s club-like environment led to a remarkable tolerance for behaviors that have long since fallen out of favor or become outright liabilities in other workplaces. 

While the letter focused on Fishman, sources described a work environment that has at times been more broadly hostile to women. Women, they said, were in some cases asked to do more work than male counterparts (the NFLPA denies this), held to double standards around their appearance and behavior, and told that certain senior roles were only for men. One worker, who has since left the organization, filed a complaint with her union local reviewed by Motherboard last year alleging bullying, harassment, and discrimination. (It was ultimately dismissed, but the woman feels her grievance was mishandled.)

Advertisement

 “We dispute any allegation that this is a sexist or toxic work environment. It is a disservice to the women and the men who work here,” wrote the NFLPA, which described the allegation that the NFLPA is an old boy’s club as “categorically false.” According to statistics it provided, half the NFLPA’s employees are women, with 28 percent being women of color, and women make up 42 percent of leadership, with half those being women of color. “In the last five years alone, 29 women members of our staff have been promoted and/or earned a more senior position within the organization,” the NFLPA wrote. “In addition, the NFLPA instituted training sessions on workplace conduct, sexual harassment training, and a professional review process for all staff.”

This is a precarious time for the NFLPA and its leadership. Last fall, the executive committee were split 7-7 in a vote on whether to keep Smith in his job; subsequently, a broader group of player representatives voted to offer him a new contract, but only after amending the union’s constitution to change the executive director’s term from a fixed five years to anywhere from one to five years. Smith has said that he will leave after this term.

Advertisement

Fishman, 64, was long second only to Smith in the NFLPA hierarchy, according to people familiar with the organization, and served essentially as Smith’s right-hand man. Both came to the NFLPA in 2009 from the powerful Washington law firm Patton Boggs, where Fishman was COO. While Smith oversaw the union’s dealings with the outside world, Fishman ran the inside of the operation. An old-school power player who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House, he earned a salary of nearly a million dollars in 2021, according to Sports Business Journal

As Colin Kaepernick’s famous protests and the Black Lives Matter movement shed light on the staggering racial inequities in the league, whose players are mostly Black—and as the NFL has had to commit large sums of money to try to repair its image—the NFLPA has faced dissent within its own house. Several years ago, for example, staffers sent a letter to Smith, a Black man, criticizing the NFLPA’s lack of visible support for Kapernick and the Black Lives Matter movement. (Fishman, two people said, was noticeably unengaged in an all-staff meeting held to address those criticisms. The NFLPA wrote that “Mr. Smith was the very first person to go on the record and publicly support Colin, and our fight for players’ right to demonstrate during the anthem and his collusion case are well documented.”) The anonymous letter is in line with this tradition of dissent, and covers behaviors that current and former employees say go back to Smith and Fishman’s arrival at the union in the early days of the Obama administration.

Advertisement

The complaints about Fishman are not universal. Lorenzo Alexander, a respected former player who sits on the executive committee, told Motherboard, “I would say players generally respect how he goes about his business, but those interactions are limited and couldn’t provide an accurate evaluation of day-to-day behavior.” Eric Reid, who was a player representative for the San Francisco 49ers until the end of the 2018 season, told Motherboard, “I know nothing about these allegations.”

Those who have dealt with Fishman on a daily basis are, however, fairly unanimous in their descriptions. In meetings, multiple sources said, Fishman behaves bizarrely—farting and throwing around his used chewing tobacco as if to make a show of power—and routinely uses harsh, degrading language. (Precisely which curses are his preferred ones, and at whom he directs them, are matters of some dispute.)

One source familiar with the NFLPA’s inner workings recalled Fishman telling one woman, a junior employee in, front of other people that "If you're still working here in two years, you're an idiot"; this woman subsequently left. (The NFLPA wrote that this took place in the context of a mentorship program, that “to characterize it as nefarious is out of context,” and that Fishman said this “as part of a longer conversation about her career.”) They also recalled Fishman humiliating a vice president in her first meeting with senior NFLPA leaders by making awkward jokes about her notebook, which had flowers and butterflies on it.

Advertisement

Multiple employees confirmed that Fishman had a reputation for roaming the halls of NFLPA’s office, a high-rise in downtown Washington DC, and making surprise visits at workers’ desks. “I used to say he must get paid per lap. Literally all day, he would walk around the perimeter of the office, said one worker, who worked in an open cubicle that she described as a “fishbowl.” 

“Ira was notorious for roaming and popping into people’s offices,” another former employee said. He would even do so when they were locked, using a pass key. (Fishman, the NFLPA wrote, “walked the halls of the office at times to say hello to staff.”) 

Employees confirmed to Motherboard that Fishman drank regularly at work, and kept a stocked mini-bar in his office. (One source remembered having to explain to a visiting player that NFLPA staff didn’t drink during the day after sharing an elevator ride with Fishman, who was carrying a glass of Maker’s Mark.) At work events, where alcohol flowed freely, Fishman was known to make a spectacle of himself, even dancing provocatively with young women. “Ira has been known to dance at holiday parties. He enjoys Motown and his wife was a regular attendee at those events as well,” the NFLPA wrote.

Women at the NFLPA say they had to adhere to more stringent guidelines.  Three people said that young women were regularly reprimanded by human resources for dress code violations. One of them, a former employee who recently quit, said human resources gave her a “formal talking-to” for wearing a V-neck top. “It wasn’t even a deep V-neck, but I was pulled into their office and asked to remain professional,” she said. “When I tried to nail down exactly what rule I had broken, they kept saying, ‘We need to be professional.’ I wish I had been told a V-neck is unprofessional, but a crew neck is professional.” She noted that another time, she came into work dressed up for an after-work event. “My supervisor looked at me and said, ‘Wow, you look really nice for once.’ I think it was this idea of being constantly monitored, that was really tough to have to deal with.” 

Advertisement

In 2021, the woman filed a grievance with her union, OPEIU Local 2, against her supervisor for creating a hostile work environment, bullying, harassment, discriminating against women employed by the union, and failing to report concerns she brought to his attention about inappropriate conduct by a member of the board of directors. (It was ultimately dismissed.)

“While we are aware of the grievance, we took it seriously and stand by the way we addressed those issues internally,” wrote the NFLPA. “Our track record as an institution of promoting women and especially women of color speaks for itself.” 

“It was definitely a really difficult workplace experience for me and a lot of women,” said the woman who filed the grievance, claiming that managers in her department assigned larger workloads to women than men in the same roles. “It was a hard place to be as a young woman knowing there was almost nothing I could do to be on the same playing field as my younger male colleagues, and knowing that the older men in my department were so aware of the misogynistic culture that they were willing to say things like ‘Don’t speak unless spoken to.”

Two employees also told Motherboard that women at the NFLPA were expected to perform certain tasks that men weren’t, such as taking notes and preparing for events. “Women were always given the task of taking notes in meetings,” one of the former employees wrote in a text message. “We also were the ones who stayed late assembling things for meetings/events with little to no help often from most of our male colleagues.” 

At the same time, women were told, sources said, they shouldn’t engage in “groupie” behavior like posing for photos with NFL players, which men at the NFLPA frequently did, and were told they wouldn’t be considered for certain roles, such as director of player affairs. (Dana Shuler, a woman, has held the role of senior director of player affairs since 2015.)

This persistent double standard seems to have created an even greater degree of frustration over Fishman’s alleged behavior. 

“A lot of the people there maybe weren’t bothered by it or think women are overreacting,” one person who worked there in mid-2000s said.

“Just because it doesn't bother you,” they added, “doesn’t mean it’s right.”