The Fine Line DeMaurice Smith is Walking


With news of the labor talks taking an optimistic turn, and the owners huddled together today discussing the issues with a proposed CBA, I started to wonder about the role of one of the main men involved.  Needless to say DeMaurice Smith has staked his reputation (and perhaps, more importantly, his current job) on the outcome of these negotiations.  When news came out that he had booted the lawyers from the negotiations last week, my first thought was not that he was showing his strong leadership skills, nor was it that Smith had finally decided the time had come for a deal.

My first thought was that DeMaurice Smith was a genius, with a well thought out plan to maintain his job.   I know it sounds cynical, but after seeing everyone involved in this whole CBA debacle preaching one thing while practicing another (mainly greed), I realized what a fine line DeMaurice Smith is walking.

A lawyer himself, he was elected the head of the union in May 2009 on the platform of fighting for the players regarding the CBA.  His main competition, former player Troy Vincent, ran on the platform of compromise with the owners.    Smith was elected the head of the union by a vote of the 32 player representatives.  He makes approximately 2.45 million dollars / year, and perhaps most importantly, his contract is due to expire March of next year.  It seems pretty obvious that his future as the head of the NFL Player’s Union is dependent on the outcome of the current CBA negotiations.

Given that he has that much at stake, he has to manage two conflicting goals:  getting as good a deal as possible from the owners, while maintaining the support of the players who elected him.  These same players have already missed out on free agency signings (and therefore signing bonuses) as well any workout bonuses written into existing contracts.  He will also represent the incoming players who were just drafted, and who are widely believed to be the first draft class to enter the NFL under a rookie wage cap.

NFL players, under the old CBA, were only paid for games actually played.  While the players union has been creating a lockout fund, it is widely believed that the players, given their relatively short careers, are not willing to miss game day checks, despite what they say state publicly.  The NFL owners know this, and as most of them are billionaires and financially well off, the owners could be willing to push the players into this scenario in order to get a better deal.

In other words, in order to keep his job, he has to agree to a CBA with NFL ownership, without missing any games, while getting the players to believe that they got the best deal possible, while convincing the owners that a better deal couldn’t be done later after players have missed a few games (and a few mortgage payments).

So when I saw that he had thrown out the lawyers, I thought it was a brilliant marketing move. He can now not only state to the players that he is tough and doing the hard work to get a deal done, but in the end he can blame the lawyers if the owners take a hard stance and the players start losing money.  From the lawyer’s standpoint, they can say that they were only doing there jobs, and when future clients are looking for tough, no-nonsense negotiating agents the lawyers can point to this negotiation and state that that they were so tough they got thrown out.  If a deal does get done and everyone is happy (or both sides are equally angry) Smith can point to his leadership skills during his reelection campaign.

In the end Smith has set himself up to be to a hero if there is a CBA, and he has a scapegoat to blame if there isn’t.