FOLLOWING the stunning election of a Washington, D.C., trial lawyer as the new executive director of the NFL Players Association on Sunday night, the question every pro football observer from the richest team owner to the end-zone Cheesehead at Lambeau Field should be asking is: Can DeMaurice Smith, whom most of the NFL rank and file had never seen or heard before last weekend, prevent a lockout when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011?
Smith, 45, whose only tie to the league was being an ardent Redskins fan, mobilized 15 advisers and friends to help him form a new business plan for the union and then wowed the 32 player reps with his one-hour presentation last Saturday. With only one round of balloting necessary, he won the job over sports attorney David Cornwell and former players Trace Armstrong and Troy Vincent.
Now Smith will have to begin negotiating a deal with the owners, who opted out of the current CBA because they felt it was weighted too heavily in favor of the players. Owners want to limit signing bonuses for rookies and modify the shared-revenue pool to take into account the massive debt that teams have taken on in building new stadiums.
As an attorney, Smith is known as a savvy consensus builder. "He sounds like the kind of guy," one source close to the owners said on Monday, "who will be able to convince the players that getting 62 percent of a modified pool of revenue will be better for the sport as a whole than keeping the current formula—60 percent of the total revenue."
Smith was able to convince the player reps—he spoke to them as if they were a jury—that he would bring much-needed change to union leadership and provide a fresh take on the players' futures. Many players viewed the establishment candidacy of Armstrong, a former union president, as soft; others didn't trust the firebrand countercandidate, Vincent, another former union president.
In addition to fresh ideas, the CBA negotiations will need real compromise. Smith has 18 months to make it happen.