Attorney DeMaurice Smith Is a Long Shot Candidate for Executive Director of National Football League Players Association (NFLPA)
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
The way DeMaurice F. Smith tells it, one of the first things he said jokingly to members of the search committee trying to identify candidates to succeed the late Gene Upshaw as executive director of the NFL Players Association was to ask if they were certain they had the right guy. He never played football beyond high school and, although he's an attorney well-versed in big business, his specialty is not labor law.
Smith, however, quickly warmed to the notion that he just might be in line to get the job that would make him perhaps the second-most powerful figure, behind only Commissioner Roger Goodell, in the nation's most prominent sports league.
As he sat in the lobby of a Washington hotel recently, the 45-year-old District native said he ended up telling the players during an interview that they were right to consider him as their potential top executive.
"What I told the players the first time I met them was if I didn't think that I was both incredibly prepared to do this job or the right person to do this job, I wouldn't be here," Smith said in his first public comments on his union candidacy. "I wouldn't have done it. I've got a great family. I've got a great job . . . at a great law firm. There are all sorts of things that I enjoy. But this opportunity was one of those things that, for the pastors that come from the other side of my family, they call their march to their profession a calling."
Smith, a partner in the firm Patton Boggs, has emerged as the leading contender from outside the sport to replace Upshaw, who died last August only days after having pancreatic cancer diagnosed. Union representatives for the 32 NFL teams are to elect a successor in mid-March during the union's annual meetings in Hawaii.
The three finalists selected by the players' 10-member executive committee are Smith and two former NFL players, Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong. Vincent and Armstrong are former union presidents, and some observers familiar with the search say Vincent appears to have secured enough votes to be elected. But the selection process has been marked by controversy and internal bickering, and others say there's a chance Smith could emerge with the job as a compromise candidate.
Smith said he was told he was targeted in the union's search in part because he was an outsider who could bring in new ideas.
"I think I have the ability of truly enjoying the sport just like every fan," Smith said. "But the perspective of managing, running, protecting, furthering a business like the corporate partner that I am -- those are the things where I find natural intersections between what I do and what I enjoy. And when I look at this opportunity to take the knowledge, the expertise and the passion of what I do for a living and combine it with something as emotionally fulfilling and enjoyable as professional football, I'm not sure there could be any other job that could match those two things better than this one."
Robert L. Clayton, an attorney and a sports labor-management consultant who said he gave input to Smith and other candidates during the union's search, said Smith's candidacy will be boosted by an ability to relate to the player representatives as he relates to members of a jury in a courtroom, and by his familiarity with Washington politics.
"He has that access and that knowledge," Clayton said. "He can relate well to Capitol Hill. He's at a firm that's in the business of relating to Capitol Hill."
The union's next executive director will inherit a long-standing labor peace in the NFL, but one that now is tenuous after the sport's franchise owners voted last year to exercise a reopener clause in their collective bargaining agreement with the players and end the deal two years early. The labor deal now will expire after the 2010 season, and the 2009 season is the final one in the current agreement with a salary cap. Upshaw had predicted that the owners would attempt to lock out the players in 2011.
Upshaw's successor also will inherit an uneasy, sometimes combative relationship with former players, many of whom have said the league and the union haven't done enough to address their medical and financial needs.