DeMaurice Smith: NFL Intent on Locking Out Players
His message is the same at every stop -- Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. So far, new players union chief DeMaurice Smith is thrilled with the way the NFL players to whom he's spoken have embraced both ends of that credo.
"The guys want to know what it's like to be a man and a businessman in the business of football," Smith told FanHouse in a phone interview Thursday, after his meeting in Nashville with the Tennessee Titans. "Especially given what looks like an intent on the part of the NFL to lock the players out."
Those are strong words, but Smith believes he has the evidence to back them up. He isn't necessarily looking for a fight, but he's ready if there's to be one. And as he travels the country speaking to players, he's pleased to find out they're very much with him.
"Our players know the league has hired the guy (attorney Bob Batterman) that engineered the NHL lockout," Smith said. "They look at these new TV contracts that guarantee payment even in the event of a lockout. And they're also very aware of what's happening to their coaches. The players get it, and that's what's fun to watch."
A couple of weeks ago, Smith and the NFLPA opened negotiations with the league and its owners on a new collective bargaining agreement. There is currently no specific date set for the resumption of those negotiations, but the sides are discussing a couple of possible dates and plan to schedule one soon. There is some urgency to get a deal done by March, since if no deal is in place by then, the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap and the likelihood of a 2011 lockout would increase.
The NFL hasn't experienced a work stoppage since 1987, when players went on strike demanding unrestricted free agency. The NFL canceled a week's worth of games that year but resumed play with replacement players and several veterans players who decided not to strike and crossed the picket line to play. The strike lasted only a few weeks, and the union -- unable to stay together -- was unable to get what it wanted. Since that time, the NFL has experienced labor peace.
"Since 1993, which is the first I can remember, it's always been 'We'll tweak some things, maybe extend the deal,' " Titans center and NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said in a phone interview. "But in my 15 years, this has been the most contentious CBA negotiation I've been a part of. Management is going to test our new guy and test the resolve of the players. But they're going to find that nobody on our side is going to back down."
This attitude has a lot to do with Smith, a Washington attorney with no prior connection to football who got his new job in March by dazzling the players with his sharp mind and detailed preparation. Smith is polished and direct, yet pleasant and approachable. He conveys tremendous confidence, even in a situation where you'd imagine experience to be paramount. Shaun O'Hara, the Giants' center and union rep, said he was amazed by the speed with which Smith familiarized himself with the pertinent issues. He made his impeccably detailed presentation to the players just three months after their search committee asked him if he'd like to be a candidate.
"No matter who you are or what level you're on, everybody wants to be led by somebody, and he's a leader," O'Hara said. "His message ever since he first arrived has been, 'One voice, one team.' In order to lead, you have to unite. And he's a uniter."
That's going to be crucial, since a lack of resolve and unity on the players' part is what doomed them in 1987 and the owners know that. Smith and several players to whom I spoke last week all say they're optimistic that a deal can get done, but there is a nagging fear among some in the union that a lockout is what the owners want -- that they'll be able to turn a profit even if no games are played in 2011 -- and that compromise isn't their goal.
"We do know something's coming on the horizon," Jets fullback and NFLPA executive council member Tony Richardson told FanHouse. "Our biggest thing is, from our standpoint, we're happy. The players are happy. The last thing we would want is a work stoppage. We like the system the way it is."
That is the union's central message -- that it's the owners, and not the players, who voted last year to opt out of the CBA they negotiated in 2006. The owners are apparently upset at a current arrangement that allots nearly 60 percent of revenues to players and would like to push for a more equitable split. The owners cite the current economic conditions as the reason they need to change the way business is done, pointing to recent layoffs and other cost-cutting measures teams have taken as proof. But the players don't feel like taking their word for it.
"I think they're trying to make an example of this situation," said Jets guard and union rep Brandon Moore. "I think they want to get it right in their eyes. Don't listen to this pomp and circumstance about them laying off two employees they wanted to lay off anyway. Come on."
Like his predecessor, the late Gene Upshaw, Smith has been public about his desire for the owners to share their audited financial statements with the players. The commissioner's office declined to comment for this story, but commissioner Roger Goodell has said several times in the past month that he believes the league shares plenty of financial information with the union and has not indicated any desire to reveal more. That's the current impasse as negotiations get underway.
"From the union's perspective, a deal was done and now they're saying it's not good enough," Mawae said. "Well, all right. Show us. Show us why it's not good enough Just show us why, in your mind, this system is not working. What's the profit/loss margin? How much do you make per game? How are you losing money? You just signed a TV deal that's worth billions of dollars even if there are no games. How are you losing money?"
Mawae seems to buy into the idea that the owners wouldn't mind a lockout as a way to get what they want.
"If the games aren't going to be played, they're still going to make their money," Mawae said. "The coaches' contracts won't get paid. The players' salaries won't get paid. They'll have no overhead. They're not the ones that are going to lose money in a lockout. The players are. For the owners, it's a possibility that it could be a money-making idea."
Smith has so far met with more than half of the NFL teams on his tour of the country. Last week, he was in Seattle on Monday, San Diego on Tuesday, Phoenix on Wednesday and Nashville on Thursday before taking the weekend to spend time with family in Tennessee. He is relentlessly on-message whether he's speaking to players, owners or the media, and he believes his mission to make sure the players are on-message with him is suceeding.
"Not only are they paying attention, they are charged," Smith said. "They're smart young men, and when they hear the word 'lockout,' they're concerned about that."
They're concerned about it, but if the labor talks continue in their current contentious stall, they'll want to make sure it's the word the public hears. The players want it made clear that it's the owners, and not them, who created the current situation by opting out -- and that if there's no salary cap in 2010 and no football in 2011, it was the owners' decision.
"The word 'strike' isn't in our vocabulary," Richardson said. "We want to play football."
Making sure that message is out there is a key part of Smith's plan. His hope is that all the players, from the NFL player reps to the highest-profile quarterbacks in the league, will be able and willing to deliver that message to the public. After all, aren't fans more likely to listen to Tom Brady than Robert Kraft? Peyton Manning over Jim Irsay?
"He gets that aspect of it," O'Hara said of Smith. "De understands the public perception aspect of it and the media aspect of it. We want everybody to be involved, and honestly, I've had more conversations with current players about benefits and CBA issues and that kind of stuff in the past couple of months than I've ever had before. So that's great."
What would be really great, they all agree, is if that heightened interest enabled them to get a deal done with the owners in time to avoid the loss of the 2010 salary cap and a 2011 lockout. The players want to play, but they have a big-picture perspective on this too.
"[A lockout] is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge right now, but we have ample time to take care of it," O'Hara said. "One of the reasons we've been so successful as a league is our last work stoppage was what? 1987? The fans know that, and they appreciate that, and we pride ourselves on that. So hopefully it's something we can avoid."
Even as he prepares for the worst, Smith continues to insist on hoping for the best.
"I am confident that we will get a deal done," Smith said. "We have a business model where 40 million people watched our draft. The NFL last year generated $8 billion in revenue. The average franchise value has increased by over 400 percent over the last 10 years. All of that occurred during the worst recession and economic downturn in any of our lifetimes. How can we put that in jeopardy?"
If it is, the players want to make sure everybody knows it wasn't them that put it there. And they're counting on DeMaurice Smith to be the guy to get it out.