How does one man find time to fight for NFL players’ pay and wellbeing and pen scripts for film and television? Welcome to the Sansiveri show.
To NFL fans, the name Sean Sansiveri may not be recognizable. To the man’s NFL Players Association colleagues, Sansiveri is very much a jack of all trades.
And in Hollywood, he’s something else entirely — a seasoned scriptwriter for TV and film.
An Elmira, New York native, Sansiveri’s official title at the NFLPA is General Counsel and Head of Business Affairs. His duties include running all of the union’s health and safety initiatives, leading the organization’s medical research initiatives, negotiating the collective bargaining agreement, revenue generation, strategic growth for NFL Players Inc., and participating on the board of OneTeam Partners. Sansiveri told Boardroom that many of the responsibilities he has taken on were not necessarily in his job description, but things he chose to pick up in order to improve the organization and fight more effectively for NFL players.
“I don’t know how he fits in all of the responsibilities that he has in the same amount of time as everyone else but I’m thankful he can do it because he is so instrumental and covers so much ground for us,” NFLPA President JC Tretter said to Boardroom in a phone interview. “He really is like a Swiss army knife for the PA with all of his areas of expertise. I’m not joking when I say this — he is one of the smartest people I have ever met.”
A graduate of Cornell and Villanova’s Charles Widger School of Law, Sansiveri additionally served from 2012 to 2020 as an adjunct professor at Georgetown. As he tell it, working directly with students only enhanced his own passion for his job with the NFLPA.
“When I used to teach [at Georgetown] students always came in wanting to be an agent and my message to them was be the talent and figure out where your passions meet the world’s needs,” he told Boardroom. “Sports is an incredible platform and that platform to actually bring about meaningful change is very real. It is why I have stayed in this job for 13 years.”
Another key component Sansiveri’s origin story is Saul Ewing LLP, a law firm in Philadelphia. There, he was part of merger and acquisition conversations for pharmaceutical companies like AztraZeneca.
“I got early exposure into what it takes to bring a therapeutic, diagnostic, or a healthcare platform service into the marketplace. The hurdles are tremendous, so I think something was seeded in me at that point of finding ways to break down those barriers and change the healthcare landscape. When I came to the PA, there wasn’t somebody with that specialty, so I’ve learned way more in the last 10 years doing this than I ever did at the law firm,” he said.
Health & Wealth
If a common football fan were to talk to Sean Sansiveri about the sport, they would undoubtedly end up speaking more about what happens outside the game rather than what happens on the field. For every single question Boardroom asked about his job at the NFLPA, the subject of athlete health came up. If one thing is clear about this man, it is that he views health and safety as a never-ending battle that requires relentless diligence.
That battle continued all throughout the 2022 NFL season. In February, the league revealed that concussions increased by 18% from a total of 126 to 149 during this past year. The league’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills said this was largely due to the NFL “broadening and strengthening” concussion protocols.
But it wasn’t just the total number that had an impact — the league had two very high-profile injury moments take place on national television this season that rekindled incredibly uncomfortable conversations about the violent nature of the game.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovalioa suffered multiple concussions last season; one of them was bad enough that it caused his fingers to lock in an unnatural position. Tagovailoa missed time as a result, though he was eventually cleared to return. Late in the regular season, arguably the direst on-field event in modern NFL history took place when Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin suffered a blow to his chest early in a game against Cincinnati, causing him to go into cardiac arrest after a play. Thankfully, Hamlin pulled through due to the immediate aid of medical professionals who administered CPR and defibrillation for about 10 minutes.
The night of Hamlin’s injury, Sansiveri was home and cozy and writing scripts as part of his entirely different gig. But in the ever-rapid world of social media, he turned on ESPN’s broadcast of the Bengals-Bills Mondy Night Football game shortly after he was alerted of the situation.
“It was a uniquely scary situation, but sitting where we are today, it was also a proud one. The NFLPA, the health and safety team, myself — we wrote the emergency action plan back in 2013. That turned into mandates where all the clubs drill them in medical meetings and to implement things with a certain level of standard care to raise the bar of care itself,” Sansiveri said as he recalled the night fans feared the worst for Hamlin. “Thankfully that process was applied perfectly and the heroes in the situation are the people who applied those protocols. We were grateful to have emergency action plans negotiated in place.”
ESPN’s broadcasters initially reported that the league planned to resume the game before it was eventually canceled. This is a detail that ESPN still stands by, as the company said in a statement, “There was constant communication in real time between ESPN and league and game officials. As a result of that, we reported what we were told in the moment and immediately updated fans as new information was learned. This was an unprecedented, rapidly evolving circumstance. All night long, we refrained from speculation.”
NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent insists that this framing of events is not accurate.
“We never, frankly, it never crossed our mind to talk about warming up to resume play,” Vincent said. “That’s ridiculous, it’s insensitive, and that’s not a place that we should ever be in.”
As for Sansiveri, he has no idea what was said between ESPN and the NFL. However, he does have other thoughts on the topic that are anything but obsolete despite Hamlin’s miraculous recovery.
“We [the NFLPA] have an obligation to challenge the NFL to do better regardless of how good we get. This is an inherently dangerous workplace, full stop. The league has an obligation under federal labor law to provide the safest work environment possible,” he said.
In terms of work safety within sports, the very nature of football is immutable. The league knows this, too, and it is working at protecting players; a new helmet to protect quarterbacks was unveiled last week. Still, NFL owners aren’t falling over themselves to ensure a higher proportion of fully guaranteed money to players even in the case of injury, an issue that continues to draw controversy around the league.
The NFLPA sees this. In October, the union filed a collusion claim alleging that certain league owners are making coordinated efforts to prevent quarterbacks from earning fully guaranteed contracts like Deshaun Watson received from the Cleveland Browns. Sansiveri declined to comment on multiple questions about the details of the case, but he did say the following:
“Similar to other CBAs [the phrases] minimum or guaranteed contract is not a term in the CBA. It is about having those high-profile players set precedence. Over 65% of the money is guaranteed now, but of course, we want to get to 100%, especially given the inherently dangerous nature of this game versus other sports which come with their own injuries and challenges.”
He is referring to Kirk Cousins and Deshaun Watson, both of whom have signed fully guaranteed deals. His hope was that the two quarterbacks would set precedence to help others get paid as how they did. Instead, superstars like Aaron Rodgers and the retired Tom Brady and up-and-coming phenoms like Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts have not received 100% guaranteed deals.
On that note, Sansiveri declined to show his entire hand, but his leanings are clear.
“I’m not that close to their contract negotiations,” he admittedly said, “[but] you have to wonder if the owners are making an agreement amongst themselves not to pay guaranteed contract, therefore colluding. I can’t comment on specific detail on that, but for now, you will see it publicly.”
With all this mind, perhaps an observer would maintain that Sansiveri is fighting an impossible battle. From one perspective, Sansiveri and Co. when agent Nicole Lynn helped Jalen Hurts sign the biggest contract in NFL history by average annual value without all of the money being guaranteed. From another perspective, however, he and the NFLPA won.
The executive told Boardroom that while 65% of contract money across the NFL is fully guaranteed, Lynn helped Hurts secure 70%. If you consider that a modest step forward, it is. Without saying a word, there is a notable hunger in Sansiveri to keep pushing until that number is 100%, and he will likely never stop — even if it means taking on NFL owners head-on.
One of the things that the NFLPA and Sean allow everyone to see is the work they do under their licensing arm, NFL Players Inc. They boast partnerships with 2K, EA Sports, Dapper Labs, DraftKings, Funko, Fanatics, Nike, Under Armour, and many more. In collaboration with each partner, the NFLPA creates products that they sell to the world. Small examples of this include video games, toys, and clothes.
To understand Sean’s worth ethic, take this story from NFLPA President JC Tretter as an example.
When Tretter first accepted his job at the PA in March 2020, he recalls being in a meeting with the president of NFL Players Inc., Steve Scebelo. As the two were about to dive into a deep discussion, Scebelo interrupted him and told him he needed to call Sansiveri first. Sean had been on an uncountable number of calls to address how the league would play during the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the players safe, so Tretter assumed there was no way he would pick up.
But of course, he did.
“I was like, ‘wait what?!’ It was so stunning to me, and then after he started speaking, I wanted to include him on every meeting I have,” Tretter told Boardroom.
The two love working together, and every now and then, Tretter will tease Sansiveri about how time must move at a different speed when he’s doing his thing. As his phone rang, Sansiveri was already looking ahead to the future of NFL Players Inc., the union’s marketing and licensing division, in an effort to secure the most equitable situation possible for the athletes he represents.
“I think over the next five to 10 years, it is going to be about growing within the changing landscape,” he said. “The metaverse is really interesting to us, the legalization of sports betting is going to be a huge opportunity, medical technology, financial lending, all of these things are growing opportunities to protect the union, which protects the players, which protects their health and wealth.”
However, there is one thing about Sansiveri that scares Tretter — the idea of ever having to replace him.
“I hope we never have to do that. He is always available, and in my call log, he is one of the top three [NFLPA] staff members that I talk to. He is a critical piece to the union and has been critical to my tenure as president of this organization,” Tretter said.
Fortunately, Sansiveri told Boardroom that the thought of leaving has not yet crossed his mind.
Freedom in Storytelling
A person who is in a job of such prominence seems like he is always wrapped up in that profession. Meanwhile, Sean Sansiveri has a Hollywood screenwriting career he somehow manages to juggle right along with his NFLPA role.
It all started with a script he shoved away. For years, the draft sat untouched, collecting dust, until he read it to a friend one day. That friend would not stop buzzing about it — so much so that one day, Sean reached out to Creative Arts Agency (CAA) on a whim. His idea was to have his script attached to Jamie Foxx. Foxx’s agent said it was not right for the Ray and Django Unchained actor, but asked if he was working on anything else.
Now, Foxx’s agent represents Sansiveri.
Boardroom spoke to two individuals to confirm the story.
That agent also represents Bill Dubuque, the award-winning screenwriter who co-created hit Netflix drama Ozark. Dubuque got connected to Sansiveri at the request of his agent. Dubuque told Boardroom that he didn’t particularly want to do it because it just didn’t feel right, but he did so anyway and he’s happy he did.
“Sean’s ego doesn’t hold onto things. I talk to people all the time who want to put a square peg in a round hole, and they hang onto it like a dog does a bone and they won’t release it,” he said. “If there’s a better idea that serves Sean’s story, he doesn’t care where it comes from. He’s smart and he recognizes it doesn’t have to be an idea that is superior to his, it’s just another avenue.”
Sansiveri said it all comes from his upbringing.
“I grew up in this dead industrial town. It had two maximum security prisons and all this weird shit happened in my hometown. It’s just sort of ripe for television,” he said, so he started writing about it and now he can’t stop. “If I’m not working for the NFLPA, I’m writing. That is how I spend my free time and it is what I enjoy doing and I’m constantly learning more. It’s a lot of random ideas, but really, all of them are family stories at the center,” he said.
The day-to-day life of Sean Sansiveri is atypical. He wakes up at 5 a.m. every day for his NFLPA duties and typically doesn’t get to writing until the very end of the day. “It is 10 minutes a day no matter what. When I have scripts that I am on a deadline to turn in, 10 minutes can turn into six hours,” he said.
Dubuque said that Sean’s writing humanizes him.
“Sean writes things that are relatable. He latches onto stories that are engaging”, he said, noting that Sean ultimately understands the business of Hollywood because he knows how to let everything go. “A lot of times, a writer will forget [that the] goal is not to be a scriptwriter; a goal is to be the person who writes feature films or TV shows. At the end of the day, somebody has to buy it and make it, but [Sean] has never forgot that.”
So, whether he is writing for minutes or hours, Sansiveri is not one to get precious about any particular line or plot detail. He may not like what happens to the script after he is done with it, but as with his work on behalf of NFL players, it’s all about doing and sacrificing whatever it takes to get the job done.
Identifying Absent Sacrifices
In a Zoom interview with Boardroom, Sean Sansiveri is asked about what his life has required him to sacrifice. (The question was initially asked on Dec. 21, but due to this journalist not having a premium Zoom account, a timer at the top of the window begins counting down — Sean has to answer this one in 90 seconds).
“I’d have to give that some real thought to answer with some authenticity and sincerity,” he said. “I’m not that social of a guy; I’m not going out partying. I go to bed between 9:30 and 10 every night. I don’t even know if I would call that a sacrifice.”
Nevertheless, when Boardroom spoke to him 20 days later on Jan. 10, he has something different to say.
“The reason I was bewildered is because I don’t really think I’ve had to sacrifice anything,” he said, looking from his computer camera for a momentary stare. It almost looks like he is about to go back in time to one of the history books on his wall.
Instead, he dives into his own history book.
“The reason I say that is because I look at my parents who are both public school teachers and what folks in that type of employment, like front-line workers or public school teachers, what they actually have to sacrifice in order to work, raise a family and do what they want in terms of their daily passion,” he said. “Then, I think about the people that came before me: Reggie White, Freeman McNeil, and John Mackey. They literally sacrificed their jobs in order to advance the field they’re in,” adding that he hoped his answer didn’t sound like copping out.
So, when will the world hear from Sean Sansiveri next? It is entirely too hard to tell; he is too busy making hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight for athletes he may not know personally whatsoever so that they can earn millions from billionaire owners content to pay them as little as they can get away with. As to why Sansiveri has never told his story quite in this way until, he said it’s due to the fact that he occupies himself fully with trying to build up the lives of everyone else around him through storytelling rather than insisting that the story be about himself.
There is a possibility that one day, Sean Sansiveri’s name will pop up against a black screen rolling through credits after you’re finished watching a television show or movie — but he is not going to consider it an L if that doesn’t ultimately happen, and that’s because he has already found peace fighting for others.
As he put it, he gets it from his mother. These days, Sean is in the process of trying to get her to retire her from her job as an elementary school principal, but she won’t give up the fight to improve so many lives around her.
And if she won’t stop, why should he?
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