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AT NFL Players Association press conferences over the years, it's been hard to tell if, rather than stewards of America's most popular sport, you were listening to a bunch of actuaries. The union bosses made baseball counterpart Donald Fehr look like Shecky Greene. And so it was refreshing last week to hear the new NFLPA executive director, former Washington, D.C., trial lawyer DeMaurice Smith, talk with some passion about his Redskins season tickets in section 306 at FedEx Field, and how, as a mid-level Obama campaign committee operative last fall, it pained him to miss the Skins' Monday-nighter against the Steelers on the eve of the presidential election. "I tried to figure out any way possible to get to the game," Smith said over lunch in Washington. "But I had to be in Richmond for the campaign, and no matter how I tried to figure it out, it wasn't going to work."
It pains Smith as a fan as much as a labor leader to hear the owners rattling their sabers less than a year after they opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement and two years before the expiration of that deal. "I think I'm like most people in America," he said. "I want to be watching football on Sundays, not home doing chores."
Last month Smith, 45, was elected by the player reps to succeed the late Gene Upshaw mostly because he was an outsider who was unencumbered by the baggage of the previous leadership, more forward-thinking and better equipped to handle big league negotiations than former players and past union presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong. Smith made it clear in a three-hour interview with SI that he won't budge on the bedrock issue that is essential to reaching a new deal with the owners: full disclosure of the football finances for each of the 32 teams. He said the league often speaks of players as partners; if the owners are under financial stress because of the terms of the current CBA—and Smith is not suggesting the league is untouched by America's economic downturn—let them prove it by showing team-by-team audited financial statements.
"The beginning and end of these negotiations rises and falls on financial transparency," Smith said. "When the owners decided to opt out of the deal and threaten a lockout in 2011, that's a very aggressive position to take with your partner. What better way to demonstrate your case than to be forthcoming with the financial information that you have? Partners reach important financial decisions together. And in the two [law-firm] partnerships I've been in, I knew everything about the financial operations of the firm."
The current CBA does mandate an independent audit of the teams' combined revenue to determine the leaguewide salary cap. "The current CBA gives the union access to an extraordinary amount of financial information," league spokesman Greg Aiello said last Saturday. "As the commissioner [Roger Goodell] has said, the union knows our revenue down to the penny." But Smith wants to see the team-by-team audits so the union can judge whether the owners opted out of the current CBA because many of them were facing legitimate hardships or simply because they wanted to negotiate a new, sweeter deal—one that would cut the players' current 60% share of the revenue.
At the league meetings in January, Goodell said, "Our environment has changed. We're now investing in stadiums. We're operating stadiums. Those are significant costs and significant risks to our ownership, and that's a risk that's borne by the ownership alone. So the model has shifted over the years, and we have to address that, and we will do that directly at the collective bargaining agreement table."
In whatever ways they plan to test Smith, the owners should not expect him to be intimidated. As a senior prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington in the 1990s, Smith handled several headline cases as a member of the violent crime and transnational/major crime sections; he once had a contract put on his life by a gang member, causing his family to live out of town briefly while Smith was guarded around the clock by U.S. marshals. As a trial attorney with the firm of Patton Boggs beginning in 2006 (he left after he won the NFLPA election), he represented accused white-collar criminals in similarly high-profile cases. "This [negotiation with owners] will not be my first rodeo," Smith said.
He has met only a handful of the league's 1,700 players, and said he plans to visit every team beginning with their minicamps and off-season training sessions in May. A skilled orator who is precise and convincing, Smith won over the player reps with his clear presentation of his vision for the union's future—"The lawyers who win are the lawyers who answer the jury's questions"—and his belief that the next CBA isn't about owners versus players. "I look at it as the owners and the players and the coaches and the retired players and the thousands of stadium workers," he said. "I won't be able to look the man who takes my parking pass at FedEx Field in the eye if I haven't done everything I can to work out a new deal."
Expect Smith to be bullish on the health and welfare benefits of retired players. He'll try to get those advocates who protested that the union was doing too little for retired players back in the fold. Last week one such former player, longtime NFLPA thorn Bruce Laird, attended a retirement board meeting, and Smith told him what scores of other retired players wish they had heard more of from Upshaw—that he will use his bully pulpit on their behalf. "We'll fix it," he said. "When I interviewed for this job, I told the [NFLPA] executive board, 'We have a moral obligation to the retired players, and we have a fiduciary obligation to them as well.'"
Sounds a lot like that other new leader in Washington.