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It is mid-December in downtown Washington, and DeMaurice Smith is sitting on a black leather chair in his eighth-floor corner office at the NFL Players Association headquarters. Beyond the wall of windows behind his large desk, snow is falling. This has created a crisis on the streets below. No Eastern metropolis deals with snow more poorly than the nation's capital. When a storm hits, gridlock isn't limited to Congress.
Smith, 47, who is completing his second year as the union's executive director, looks neither harried nor hurried. He's wearing slacks and a V-neck sweater on this casual Friday as he leafs through files. Earlier in the day he spent 20 minutes on a conference call with four retired players who wanted details on the status of a new collective bargaining agreement, and now he's seeking specific information to support one of his talking points.
The owners, Smith keeps hearing, would be foolish to lock out the players if a new agreement isn't reached before March 4. The NFL generated $9.3 billion in revenue last year and set numerous television-ratings records. NBC's Sunday-night football telecast became the first sports series to win the fall TV season, with an average of 21.8 million viewers. Super Bowl XLV, between the Packers and the Steelers, was the most-watched broadcast in the history of American television, with an audience of 111 million.
Smith reaches into his papers and pulls out a program from a 1991 union meeting. Former executive director Gene Upshaw, preparing to speak to player reps, wrote some introductory remarks in cursive on the back of the program. Smith begins reading to himself, then stops halfway through and recites: The owners will always take short-term loss for long-term gain.
These 10 words have become Smith's compass and will guide him during the coming days, as the league and the players face the possibility of the first NFL work stoppage in 24 years. Whenever Smith is asked why the owners would close their doors when revenue and ratings are at alltime highs, his answer is always the same: because revenue and ratings are at an alltime high.
"The third-grade analysis of this labor situation is that no one wants to kill the golden goose," Smith says. "But look at it like this: The league is guaranteed $4 billion from the TV networks [in 2011] even if there's no football. So I keep coming back to Gene's view, which is: Of course they would shut it down! Even if there is short-term pain, the potential long-term gain would outweigh it."
So Smith pushes forward in what is sure to be his most challenging fight. After graduating from Virginia law school he spent nine years in the U.S. Attorney's office and one at the Department of Justice, handling issues ranging from national security to prison construction, and was a trial lawyer in the D.C. offices of Latham & Watkins and Patton Boggs, where he specialized in criminal defense and tort liability. During much of that time victory or defeat was often easy to identify: conviction or acquittal.
The line between winning and losing in this case will not be as clear. A deal will require compromise. How much is Smith willing to give? To look at his past is to see someone who knows what he wants and doesn't stop until he gets it, someone accustomed to combat, who sees little virtue in backing down. That's one reason his presence in these negotiations makes people in the league office, and even within union headquarters, uneasy. "I just don't walk away from fights," Smith says. "You either believe in your ability to get it done or you don't. Walking away from a tough fight where everybody thinks you might get your ass kicked—who's going to blame you for it? Staying and fighting when you know you might get your ass kicked, that's hard. I can't trick myself into taking the easy way out."
It is 1981. Smith, a freshman at Cedarville (Ohio) University, decides to run for class president. Soon one of the tires of his car is punctured, harassing calls are being left on his answering machine, and notes reading "Go home, NIGGER!" are left in his mailbox. It is not the first time he has been confronted with racism, and he must decide what to do.
He asks himself, Is it worth it? Should I just quit? But the more vicious the threats become, the more determined he is. He wins the election.