Meet The Man Who Stands Between 2,000 Of The World's Best Athletes And 32 Billionaire Owners

DeMaurice Smith

Photo: AP

With just 39 days remaining before the NFL’s labour agreement with its players expires, there has yet to be significant dialogue, let alone progress, between the two sides.We’ve covered the various points of contention at great length, but the main problem for the players is that the billionaire owners who pay their salaries hold much of the leverage, and appear ready to forgo 2011 regular season games to see that their demands are met. Fighting on behalf of the players is union director DeMaurice Smith.

Here’s what we learned about him from today’s New York Times profile:

  • He played football in high school but never at a higher level. He began his law career as a criminal prosecutor for the U.S. attorney.
  • He idolizes Marvin Miller, the longtime leader of the MLB Players Association who transformed the baseball union from essentially indentured servitude, to arguably the most powerful union in America.
  • While the previous NFLPA head, Gene Upshaw, maintained a good relationship with the NFL commissioner and routinely made complicated labour deals easily, Smith isn’t inclined to forge buddy-buddy relations with Goodell: “Nobody gets stronger without fighting,” he says.
  • Smith tells the Times he’s protecting all “who play, have played, and will play” football. His predecessor, Upshaw, was famous for saying “I don’t work for” retired players. 
  • Smith says the NFL has taken about as hard a stance as he could have foreseen. “The NFL at every step has done everything to drive this union out of business.”
  • Smith has turned to other union leaders for solidarity: he went out of his way to meet Jimmy Hoffa, the longtime Teamsters union leader and son of the disappeared labour leader, and is friendly with Leo W. Gerard the United Steelworkers president who never had a relationship with Upshaw.FanHouse.comFormer NFLPA head Gene Upshaw passed away in 2008.
  • Regarding the 18-game season, Smith believes the players’ risking their health outweighs the owners financial risk and should take precedence. “Fundamentally the business model in football is, players trade what they can do physically and mentally for compensation.”

The most fascinating aspect of the 2600+ word profile has to be the relationship between Upshaw’s job and Smith’s position. Upshaw had a longstanding reputation of being too close to the owners, and his inability to attain guaranteed contracts for his players – a pillar of player contracts in the MLB, NBA, and NHL – is viewed as a major shortcoming. Even this story notes that Upshaw and Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner, “seemed to backslap their way from agreement to agreement.”

But the strength of Upshaw’s last deal for the players, according to a sports consulting firm quoted in the article, is what brought about this round of strenuous labour talks, and will ultimately force Smith to return to his player’s with a lesser deal.

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