Understanding Professional Football History -
The Epic Tale of the Player's Union

The NFL Kickoff countdown is over and in the spirit of the 2021 NFL season, CARD wants to shine a spotlight on one of our favorite partners: the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). 

CARD has worked with the NFLPA since 2016, and we include hundreds of in-game images, numbers, and signatures in our gallery of custom payment cards. Each season, CARD and the NFLPA work together to help bring football fans closer to their favorite players. 

But even the biggest football fanatic might not realize the critical role that the NFLPA has played in forming the $91 billion franchise that is the NFL. Here’s a small glimpse into NFL history at how the professional football players’ labor union got its start…

A Brief Snapshot of NFL History

Picture this – the NFL in the early 1950’s…

The helmets aren’t required to have face-guards, the uniforms aren’t crisp and shiny, and the grass is long. The sport looks different on the field, but the structure of the league and the career paths of the players would also be unrecognizable to today’s fans.   

The NFL, the first-ever professional football league, was founded in 1920 (under the name American Professional Football Association) as American love for the sport outgrew college-level ambitions. However, by the 1950s, there still were no league standards for how team owners should treat and pay their players.

There were no league salary minimums, meaning that owners could decide how much to pay each player with zero oversight. The league also didn’t have a “free agent” structure – players were essentially wage employees of team owners. Back then, trying to leave your team didn’t mean getting to play for another city; it meant getting blackballed by the league. Many players, even those at the top of their game, sold cars or worked other odd jobs to make ends meet in the offseason. 

NFLPA: The Voice of the Players

In response to 30-plus years of unfair standards, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) was founded in 1956 on a simple request: “Clean socks and jocks.” A coalition of players came together demanding that owners provide teams with clean, safe equipment.

These simple demands for decent working conditions blossomed into a strong rallying cry for players rights that would completely change the trajectory of professional football. The NFLPA played a big part in creating the career opportunities and job security players have today.

Over the next several decades, the NFLPA collectively bargained with the league, creating tension between players and owners. Ongoing conflict over salaries, agency, and benefits created a few strikes and lockouts over the NFL history timeline.

However, the NFLPA emerged victorious in several landmark court cases and collective bargaining battles. The Supreme Court’s 1957 decision in Radovich v. National Football League required the NFL to adhere to anti-trust law. This ruling opened the door for the NFLPA to become a full-fledged union that would go on to negotiate multi-million-dollar collective bargaining agreements (CBAs).

A massive league lockout occurred in 2011 when the NFLPA fought to negotiate new CBA terms, marking the first lockout since 1987. After 134 long days, the NFLPA reached an agreement with the league. 

Fast forward to 2020… A new long-term CBA was negotiated and passed, effective through the 2030 season. The agreement includes evolving health and safety protocols and amendments aimed at protecting players during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The NFLPA in 2021

The NFLPA continues to fill many roles, protecting players and their rights, wages, images, and benefits democratically. Players who are NFLPA members vote to elect a Player Representative and three alternates for each of the 32 teams. These representatives sit on the Board of Player Reps, a governing body that meets at least once annually to discuss and vote on major decisions regarding the business of football.

Union duties include upholding the CBA by making sure teams and owners continue to stick to the terms. The NFLPA also keeps track of player insurance and retirement benefits, ensuring that players receive the financial security they’re promised.

These days, the pandemic requires new types of oversight never before needed in professional sports. Since the first shutdown, the NFLPA has stepped up to advocate for COVID-19 safety protocols on and off the field, cementing public health protections with negotiated amendments to the 2020 CBA .

Finally, and maybe most relevant to fans, the NFLPA manages the licensing for player names, images, and likenesses, which includes their jerseys, video games, trading cards and more. Through Players Inc. – its for-profit marketing and licensing arm, the NFLPA runs a platform for companies to use affiliated players in all kinds of marketing campaigns. 


The NFLPA increases players’ exposure and opportunities while also allowing companies to boost their own brand awareness. The NFLPA uses its close relationship with players to match them with companies looking to collaborate — and one of those companies is CARD! 

Since 2016, CARD has licensed hundreds of player photos, numbers, and signatures from the NFLPA. We love giving our customers the chance to support their favorite player every time they use their everyday payment card.


Evolving from the simple request of “clean socks and jocks” to multi-million-dollar negotiations, the NFLPA represents the legacy of players who risked their careers to stand up for what was right. 

✅  Looking to support the NFLPA? Learn more about their marketing partnerships, opportunities, initiatives, and programs by visiting the NFLPA website.

✅  Give a little back to the union each month by choosing and using a card with your favorite player’s image, number, or signature. There are hundreds of cards to choose from the CARD Premium Banking gallery

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