For many involved with the National Football League, the Super Bowl marks the end of the work season. For Adam Richelieu ’13, it’s the eve of his busiest time of the year.
As the salary cap and contract manager for the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA), he is an invaluable resource for thousands of athletes negotiating new contracts. The minute the confetti hits the turf and the Lombardi trophy is handed over, Richelieu gets to work.
“One of the big misconceptions is that people tend to think that in-season is the craziest time, but that’s probably the least busy time of the year for me because all the contracts are done at that point,” said Richelieu.
Richelieu’s job is to ensure that every player in the NFL gets as much compensation for their talents and effort as they can. He compares it to the kind of work financial or legal consultants do, except that it involves some of the biggest sports stars in the world.
By analyzing player markets and stat incentives, he and his team provide agents of NFL players with as much information as possible to help them better negotiate contracts with their respective teams.
When a big-name quarterback or wide receiver gets a new contract, it affects all the others in the league.
“It’s essentially making sure that I’m helping both the player and his agent maximize his ‘take-home’ once his career is over and everything is all said and done.”
The son of a civil rights attorney, Richelieu had considered entering the legal field after Auburn. After graduating with a degree in political science and government, he began studying for the LSAT and interned at a legal nonprofit office. At the same time, he took a part-time job with Auburn Athletics as an event manager.
“It became one of those things where I started realizing I was not enjoying myself at the legal internship and having the time of my life working with athletics, especially on football game days,” recalls Richelieu. The highlight of it all was standing next to the pylon where Chris Davis scored the ‘Kick-Six’ touchdown. “That completely solidified things for me. That night, I made up my mind that football was my path while walking past Toomer’s Corner. I called my parents the next day and said I was going the sports route.”
A native of Alexandria, Va., Richelieu was elated to be accepted by his first choice for grad school at George Washington University and return to his home region. Part of the program’s appeal was it afforded the opportunity to work at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he compiled logistical or statistical pieces of information as an Olympic Games Knowledge Management data collector. The job afforded him the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see swimmer Michael Phelps’s final race, an experience he compares only to the Kick-Six.
Through his GW program advisor Lisa Neirotti, Richelieu landed an internship with the Washington Redskins as a marketing intern. Though he knew he wanted to do salary cap work someday, it was his first step toward a dream he had long sought. But it was an unexpected opportunity that helped him the most.
Two weeks into his internship, he learned a salary cap intern took a job as an associate at a law firm and would not be returning; suddenly, they had an open position right down the hall. He approached the Redskins Vice President of Football Operations and General Counsel Eric Schaffer about working both internships since he was already there every day of the week. Schaffer said yes. A year and a half later, he was at the NFLPA.
In some ways, Richelieu’s work mirrors his father’s civil rights legal career in the end after all. The NFL, despite being entertainment, is still a business, and despite the apparent or intrinsic value of each player, each club tries strike bargain deals with everyone. Factor in the salary cap and the incentive to give every player a maximum-value contract is significantly lower.
Where Richelieu can help level the playing field is through helping agents negotiate better contracts for their players. Whenever one position player signs a better deal, another can use it to enhance the argument for their own contract.
“Each player definitely affects the others and the market as a whole, which is why I try to keep my eye on as many negotiations as possible and help where needed,” he said. “The clubs and I tend to play this fun little game of chess where they look for the weak point, the contract that will help set the market as low as possible. I’m always trying to ensure that the floor is as high as possible.”
Building relationships with NFL executives like Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Director of Football Operations Mike Greenberg, the Pittsburgh Steeler’s VP of Football and Business Administration Omar Khan, San Francisco 49er’s Director of Football Administration and Analytics Brian Hampton and Atlanta Falcon’s Director of Football Operations Nick Polk has been an invaluable resource not only for understanding the field better, but also in guiding his own career.
Detroit Lions Vice President of Football Administration Mike Disner, in particular, became a kind of mentor for him at the beginning of his NFLPA career. Around the time when Disner made the Forbes Magazine “30 Under 30,” Richelieu was looking to learn as much as he could about the industry.
Never one to seek the spotlight, he had no idea that he himself would be selected for the 2020 “30 Under 30” list but sees it as a sign that following his passion for sports has him in the right direction.
“You set a lot of goals for yourself as a kid — one day you think you’re going to be a rock star, the other day you want to be the next Bill Gates or president,” said Richelieu. “I always wanted to work in football.”
One of Richelieu’s most lasting Auburn memories actually began in a moment of panic. While driving back from his legal internship in Montgomery, coasting on fumes into a gas station, he realized he was missing his wallet at the worst possible moment. He was fretting at the gas pump in his business clothes as an elderly woman in a beat-up car pulled in behind him. He’ll never forget what happened next.
“She sees I have problem, walks up and asks what’s wrong. I said I’m out of gas, don’t have my wallet and have to call someone to come help me. She hands me a $20 and says, “get yourself home.”
He refused at first, but the woman insisted. She told him she had a granddaughter attending Auburn, and if she was ever in a similar situation, she hoped someone would do the same for her. He wanted to get her contact info so he could reimburse her, but she refused.
“She basically forced the bill in my hand, walked away and said, ‘War Eagle and good luck,’ he said. “That story has really stuck with me all these years. It speaks volumes about the Auburn family as a whole.”
Though his passion for Auburn has never been stronger, Richelieu hasn’t been able to return to the Plains since he left. The last time he planned to come down, he was promoted to a new position at the NFLPA. Not the best time to take a week off. But now he has a new incentive to return.
Richelieu was recently engaged to his fiancé Brigid, who has never been to an SEC home game. He’s hoping her first experience can be the Auburn-Arkansas game this fall.
For all of his proximity to the game’s biggest stage, the NFL Players’ Association’s commitment to impartiality has increased his passion for the college game like never before.
“I’ve funneled all my NFL fandom back to Auburn,” he laughed. “My fall Saturdays are sacred to me now.”