His job's not done, but DeMaurice Smith has passed the test so far
DeMaurice Smith had key issues to win on in labor negotiations
Smith got extra benefits for retired players, fought owner exemptions and more
Smith must keep the relationship with the league from turning sour
Time to assess how De Smith, the first-time union boss, the first-time labor negotiator, the first-time football executive, did in the 28 months he spent getting the players a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement.
On Monday, I asked two agents I respect -- smart guys, able to tone down the rhetoric and see things impartially -- how they think Smith did. One said he thought Smith got taken to the cleaners, didn't push the NFL hard enough on retired players and should have pushed for the cap to be higher than $120.4 million in 2011. The other said, simply, "He beat the spread.'' In other words, after the union lost its leverage in court, he did better for his players -- while missing no regular-season games -- than this agent believed he would.
Three weeks after Smith took the job in March 2009, I interviewed him for three hours at a Washington restaurant. I remember five points about the interview clearly.
1. He felt he was not only the voice for current players, but also for retired players and for minimum-salary stadium employees.
2. If the owners wanted more money exempted from revenue sharing, they'd have to give the players a full view of their audited financial statements.
3. If the owners wanted a 17- or 18-game regular season schedule, they'd have to present compelling evidence that players wouldn't be injured at a higher rate than normal, and they'd be paid at a higher rate. He was open to considering one or two more regular season games; if players were unilaterally opposed, he'd respect their wishes.
4. He saw no reason to reduce rookie salaries. "That's not our job,'' he said. "I haven't seen a rookie check that isn't signed by an owner.'' In other words, he wasn't going to help the owners be protected from themselves.
5. He wanted better post-career health care for players, not just the five years of health coverage they received immediately after retiring under the existing contract.
There were other issues, and, of course, other things surfaced in the labor deal. But let's look at those five points and see where the players are today versus the previous CBA.
Retired players and stadium workers. An additional $1 billion over 10 years will be spent on retirees, many of who have horrible pensions (like Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly's $176-a-month pension) and lingering health and brain issues. Some retirees don't think Smith did enough, and they think the league was more aggressive in funding this program than the NFLPA was.
Stadium workers didn't miss a game, though there's no unionized representation for them, and no indication that the guy who works in the FedEx Field parking lot will make any more money. Bottom line: This is the first time in years life-changing money has been invested to help the lives of retired players; stadium workers won't miss any money. Smith did what he said he'd do.
Fighting the billion-dollar owners' exemption. The players insisted on the owners opening the books. The owners didn't, and the players didn't budge. Now, the owners did get 60 percent of all revenue from locally produced income in the next 10 years, but there's no reason the players should get a lion's share of the grow-the-game money. Bottom line: Smith did what he said he'd do.
The 18-game schedule. This isn't dead, because the owners can choose to cut the preseason from four to two games, not replace those two games with regular season games, and force the players to go to 18 if they want to avoid losing some money. As Mike Florio wrote Monday, this could be a staredown game, with the players forced to accept 18 games if they want to continue the money growth they've become accustomed to. We'll see. Bottom line: This is incomplete, but for now, Smith avoided the extra two games his players universally despised. If he considers giving in on it, which isn't likely, his players would rebel.
Reducing rookie salaries. His words to me in 2009 were either na´ve or a brave front. Owners were going to win this one at the expense of almost every other issue. Bottom line: Though players at the top of the first round won a potentially lucrative fifth-year option as part of the settlement, Smith failed to keep a rookie wage scale from being imposed.
Expanding post-career health care. Players who take the field for games at any point during the 10-year CBA term won lifetime health care, with the usual (and sometimes onerous) deductibles. Bottom line: Though this was offered unexpectedly (stunningly, as I recall) by the NFL in March before talks broke off, and Smith can't take credit for it, the fact is it's in the final deal -- so Smith delivered.
What Smith also won: a significant improvement in guaranteed contracts, whereby players with career-ending injuries in mid-contract can receive up to $1.5 million after the year they've been disabled ... players getting 55 percent of the ever-growing network TV pie ... five weeks less of offseason workouts, and fewer contact-and-padded practices during the season ... 95 to 99 percent of the cap to be spent by teams each year instead of the floor-less system that enabled teams to get by spending up to $40 million less in 2010 than the 2011 cap figure.
What Smith didn't deliver: an opt-out provision, in case players were unhappy with the deal in mid-CBA; Roger Goodell clearly won this one, insisting the network money would be less if the league couldn't guarantee uninterrupted football ... the continuation of the system mandating the player-friendly federal court to oversee major labor disputes between players and owners ... players getting less than 50 percent of all football revenue.
Smith did get a signed deal with teams forced to spend 99 percent of the salary cap 45 days before the start of the regular-season. He got a good deal without missing any games.
I believe Smith knew all along he absolutely did not want to take this conflict into the season. He knew his players wouldn't be set up for missing potential millions, so he had to do everything he could to get the best deal he could, knowing deep down he would miss games only as an absolute last resort.
One more thing. The late fight over the opt-out provision shows me the players on the union's Executive Board -- and many players leaguewide -- do not trust the owners. At all. The show of camaraderie between the owners and league notwithstanding, I worry about the relationship between the two sides going south in a hurry. I know Smith has the substance abuse and discipline policies to worry about going forward, but I view part of his job, a big part, to be sure lines of communication stay open. And not bitter.
I'm going to give Smith an A-minus for the job he did ... with the clear understanding that the job's not done. But so far, he's delivered what he promised, and more.