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Russell Okung Wants to Disrupt the N.F.L. Establishment

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The series of events that made Russell Okung, an offensive tackle with the Los Angeles Chargers, realize he needed to force change in the N.F.L. began in July, when he became short of breath during an off-season practice.

He went to the sideline but still struggled to breathe. He drove home. His wife insisted he see a doctor.

The next morning at the hospital, a test revealed blood clots in his lungs and left leg. Consulting with doctors, Okung learned that people like him — 300-pound linemen who absorb a lot of hits — often get these clots, and that he’d be lucky to play again.

When Okung told the Chargers about his condition, the team put him on the non-football injury list, which could have allowed the team to slash his multimillion-dollar salary.

“I felt like I was being punished,” he said. “In what other profession do you go to your employer with whom you signed a contract, and promised to honor that contract, and have some lethal, life-threatening ailment, and the response is to cut your pay?”

Okung recovered from the scare and returned to the field in November. After lengthy talks with the Chargers, he received his full salary. But the episode drove home to Okung, a 10-year veteran, how vulnerable N.F.L. players are.

Now, as Super Bowl week begins in South Florida, the prospect of a turbulent year ahead looms, with a potential labor impasse once again threatening the world’s most prosperous sports league. Okung is plotting to make negotiations as confrontational as possible.

Already a member of the executive committee of the N.F.L. Players Association, Okung plans to run for union president to replace Eric Winston, who must step down in March because he is no longer on an active roster. More broadly though, Okung’s life-changing diagnosis has spurred him to want to create a far more aggressive union, to disrupt the status quo and reverse what he sees as years of concessions, even if this leads to a lockout or a strike when the collective bargaining agreement expires after next season.

He wants to fight for a greater share of the league’s revenue, and redefine what owners share with the players. He is seeking better health care and bigger pensions for retired players. Okung said the union needs more power to audit the league’s finances and a stronger arbitration system. He wants to overhaul the wage scale and even review the current union structure.

“Are we in an equitable agreement with management?” Okung said. “Right now, the answer is no. This will take as long as it needs to.”

Okung is the first player to declare his candidacy, but Richard Sherman, the star cornerback on the San Francisco 49ers who has spoken often in defense of players’ rights, is also said to be interested. Sherman, through a spokesman, declined to discuss a potential run for union president.

George Atallah, a spokesman for the union, declined to comment on the election and Okung’s complaints about the current union leadership.

Okung’s candidacy comes at a delicate time for the union and the league. The 32 owners have been pushing the union and its executive director, DeMaurice Smith, to renew the current collective bargaining agreement, which does not expire for another 14 months, in March 2021. The owners want to lock down a deal as soon as possible as a hedge against the possibility of a weakening economy or diminished television ratings during an election year. Either event could damage their position in upcoming negotiations for new media deals with the television networks, which have been reluctant to commit to new agreements without a guarantee of long-term labor peace between the owners and players.

The owners receive about 53 percent of the billions of dollars in television rights, sponsorships and merchandise sales the league generates. So far, they have resisted sharing much more than that. (One percentage point is worth $153 million per year based on the league’s current revenue.)

The owners and the Players Association remain far apart on several fundamental issues, according to a memo the union distributed to its members recently, including the percentage of total revenue the players would receive and larger pensions for players who retired before 1993.

The owners also want to add a 17th regular-season game, which Okung and many players oppose. The 16-game season is already too damaging to their bodies, they said.

The extra game being pushed by owners is untenable “without recognizing the suffering of our retired players,” Okung said. “We can’t neglect those issues in order to get more money. Am I going to trade health and safety for a buck?”

To Okung, the owners have offered paltry concessions because they feel they can outlast the players.

Former union leaders applauded Okung for taking a long view. Charles Grantham, the director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall University and a longtime executive at the National Basketball Players Association, said Okung entered the league before the current deal was struck in 2011 and can see how the owners outmaneuvered the players on several key issues, including extending the agreement to 10 years from five.

“It’s important that a veteran like Russell remind all players that the pressure by management to sign a 10-year deal isn’t something you necessarily need to do,” Grantham said. “He can see the bigger picture of where labor and management have been.”

The question is whether Okung’s insurgent campaign is a sign of weakness for the players, who have struggled with unity in the past, and whether owners will seize on it to exploit a rift in the union.

Okung said many other players support his aggressive approach to negotiations.

The current union leadership, he said, has not pushed back at the owners hard enough.

“I expect more, and I’m not willing to be bashful about saying that,” Okung said. “I’ve made it really clear we need to exhaust every single opportunity we have in order to put our players in a better situation to take care of themselves, their families and to protect the future of this game.”

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