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Posted: Tuesday March 23, 2010 12:41PM; Updated: Tuesday March 23, 2010 6:06PM
Jim Trotter

NFL players confident Smith is right man to lead battle against owners

Story Highlights

DeMaurice Smith and the players are convinced there will be a lockout in 2011

Smith wants players to get ownership stakes in return for assuming financial risk

More than money, players like Matt Hasselbeck say healthcare is top concern

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One year into his job as NFLPA executive director, DeMaurice Smith is preparing the union for a potential work stoppage in 2011.
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WAILEA, Hawaii -- As he settled into his seat last year for the most important Players Association meeting in three decades, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck felt the type of butterflies normally associated with a big game. Longtime executive director Gene Upshaw had died unexpectedly from cancer seven months earlier, and now the 32 player representatives were gathered in a conference room at the Fairmont Kea Lani resort to elect the successor who would lead the union into a potentially nasty labor battle with the owners.

Hasselbeck listened carefully to the four candidates before voting with the majority for DeMaurice Smith, a respected Washington-based trial attorney whose only ties to the game were the Redskins season tickets his family has owned since the mid-1970s. Smith's selection represented a sea change within the union because it typically had been headed by a former player, the notable exception being Ed Garvey's 12-year run that ended in 1983.

When the votes were tallied, Hasselbeck exhaled a sigh of relief, but the butterflies remained in his stomach.

"De was clearly the right guy. Clearly," Hasselbeck says. "But some of us felt a lot of pressure when the vote was over -- like, did we do the right thing? You want to get it right because it's such an important decision. I'd say a lot of us feel good now that we can go back to the locker room and work out and train and focus on football without worry because we have someone who is taking care of things. We got the right guy."

The importance of the selection looms even larger now that the NFL is 12 months from what could be its first work stoppage in 24 years. The players association is so convinced the owners will close their doors when the collective bargaining agreement expires in March 2011 that its Web site features a "LOCKOUT WATCH" in the masthead.

The owners approved the current collective bargaining agreement in 2006 but opted out of it two years later because, in their opinion, it forces them to assume too much of the financial risk to grow the game via new stadiums, league-owned media outlets and international games. The current agreement calls for as much as 59 percent of total league revenues to go to player salaries. The owners' initial proposal for a new CBA sought to have the figure slashed to 41 percent.

That sound you hear in the background is laughter from the union offices.

The players are not going to take that big a rollback, and the league knows it. That's one reason Smith has yet to make a serious counterproposal. In his mind, there's no reason for the union to negotiate against itself.

"If there is a lockout I will leave it to the NFL's management to explain to America why they took away America's game at a time when some teams make $90 million a year in profit, according to Forbes magazine, and some teams make $20 million in profit on the low end, according to Forbes," Smith says. "I'll leave it to the NFL to explain the justification for taking away America's game when the average NFL owner makes $31 million a year in profit -- in the worst recession of our lives. We have been talking about this for a year and not one person from the National Football League has ever said that that $31 million profit figure is wrong. Not one."

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners are reluctant to open their financial records for the players to peruse.
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Smith was elected in part because he was an outsider with fresh ideas. After listening to league representatives repeatedly talk about the increasing financial risks owners are assuming, he suggested the sides create a true partnership in which there were equal risk. The way to do that? Give the players ownership stakes in the teams.

His plan: For each percentage point the owners received in rollbacks, the players would receive an equity share in the franchises. When an owner sold the team, the players' share of the profit would go into the players' pension fund.

"What better way to take care of the risk that the owners have than to become true partners?" Smith says. "We've already been told by the Management Council that the owners aren't interested in that. My response is, then where is your risk?

"If you're a waiter and you're on your way into the restaurant to work, how many take out $10 and stuff it into a box because it's going to keep the lights on in the restaurant? Nobody does that. So you have NFL owners saying that we need players to rent their own locker rooms. That's in the proposal. And pay for their own travel costs. That's in the proposal. The 18 percent rollback contains a list of costs that they want the players to bear. Included in that cost is, we need you to give us money back for the operation of the practice facility."

Smith wants the owners to open their books so the union can see where the money is being spent. Are owners paying themselves or their relatives exorbitant salaries? Are they using the team to cover losses or expenses in other businesses? Are they charging themselves for luxury suites or travel unrelated to the team?

The league views such questions as diversionary tactics, contending that the union knows to the penny how much revenue each club receives and what portion goes to player salaries. One league source said the teams don't open their books to each other, so there's no way they're going to open them for the union. Smith remains undeterred.

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