Ed Garvey, labor lawyer who led NFL players on two strikes, dies at 76

Ed Garvey, Dave Stalls, Burgess Owens, James Lofton, Gene Upshaw, Stan White
Labor lawyer Ed Garvey (at microphone). From left are Dave Stalls, Tampa Bay; Burgess Owens, Los Angeles Raiders; James Lofton, Green Bay Packers and Gene Upshaw, L.A. Raiders. To Garvey’s right is Stan White, Detroit Lions.
(Ray Stubblebine / AP)

Ed Garvey, the lawyer who led the National Football League Players Assn. through strikes in 1974 and 1982, has died at age 76.

Garvey died Wednesday at a nursing home outside Madison, Wis., after a battle with Parkinson’s disease, the Capital Times reported. Garvey had  been the players’ union counsel and executive director from 1971 to 1983.

“Ed literally built us into a union, thanks to his brilliance and loyalty to the players, and no one will ever forget his biting and effective wit,” current NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said.

A 1969 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, Garvey joined the Minneapolis firm that later represented the fledgling NFLPA. Neither of the player strikes was particularly effective, and the 1982 walkout resulted in the season being shortened from 16 games to nine.


The nationally known labor attorney was a political heavyweight in Wisconsin, where he returned in 1983. Garvey ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Robert Kasten. In 1998, Garvey took on incumbent Gov. Tommy Thompson but lost after a tough campaign.

He later created a website that featured progressive political content.

Garvey initially became involved with football when he was assigned to counsel NFLPA President John Mackey, a tight end who would make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as the union negotiated a new labor agreement with the league. Soon after, Garvey became the union’s first executive director when the NFLPA became the certified bargaining agent for the players.

One of Garvey’s main objectives was to eliminate the Rozelle Rule, which bound players to their teams by discouraging free agency. The union didn’t achieve free agency until 1993, when another former player and Hall of Famer, Gene Upshaw, had taken over leading the union.


Upshaw led the players through another strike in 1987, when the NFL used replacement players for three games. Even though he no longer had an active role with the union, Garvey drew some criticism then for yet another walkout.

Short of gaining unfettered free agency, the union won major concessions from the owners, including improved packages of player benefits and $13.65 million in damages for antitrust violations against the players.

“Since being elected president of the NFL Players Assn., I am always reminded of a specific quote: ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants,’” said Bengals offensive lineman Eric Winston. “One of those ‘giants’ was Ed Garvey....

“Ed’s relentless work helped set the foundation for the numerous benefits and breakthroughs we as players have experienced, especially during these latter parts of our 60-year history. I am saddened to hear about his passing, but I am confident that his strong legacy will continue to guide the work of our players union.”

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