Union Head Smith Faces a Full Slate

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On his first full day as executive director of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice F. Smith said he expected to begin labor negotiations with the sport's franchise owners soon and indicated he's hopeful a deal will be struck that would avoid a work stoppage in two years.

Smith, the D.C. lawyer elected Sunday as the successor to the late Gene Upshaw, also said he plans to work with retired players to address concerns that created conflicts between them and the union in recent years.

But it wasn't all talk on Smith's first day. He ran a meeting with the players' ruling executive committee and, according to a source, he has asked former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy to serve as a liaison between the union and the league on player-related issues.

The threat of a labor confrontation with the owners is the biggest issue Smith will face early in his tenure, and he said from Hawaii in a conference call with reporters the players will be ready for a tussle if that's what the owners want.

"There isn't a day where I don't hope for peace," Smith said. "But at the same time, there isn't a day where we won't prepare for war."

Smith reiterated what he said recently -- that he feels the union and current players have "a moral obligation" to address the needs of retired players. Smith said the transition team he's forming will include former players.

"We want them to be a part of our team," Smith said.

He also wants Dungy on his team. Dungy, a former NFL player, retired as the Colts' coach after this past season. It's not clear if he'll accept Smith's offer.

Smith, a partner at the firm Patton Boggs, was elected on the first ballot Sunday in a vote by the players who serve as union representatives for the 32 NFL teams. The union announced Smith will serve a three-year term.

"In the end, it was a very easy decision for all of us," New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a member of the executive committee, said during the conference call.

The vote was taken at the union's annual meetings in Maui, Hawaii. Smith and members of the executive committee participated in yesterday's conference call just before beginning an early-morning meeting.

"We're very, very pleased to move forward with who we see as a leader who can lead us in the right direction, right now," said Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, another executive committee member.

Smith, 45, had no significant connection to the NFL when he was identified as a candidate by the union's search committee. The players wanted some candidates from outside the sport in an effort to potentially find someone who could bring in new ideas. Smith was chosen Sunday over a group of finalists that included two former NFL players, Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong, and lawyer David Cornwell, who has close ties to the sport.

Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae, the union president, said Smith won players' support by being open and honest whenever he addressed them.

"We never viewed him as an outsider or a guy that had to come and sell something to us," Mawae said.

Smith said his first call when he got back to his hotel room after the vote was to Upshaw's widow, Terri. Smith called that "a special call for me."

Gene Upshaw died last August, only days after having pancreatic cancer diagnosed.

Smith said he also spoke after the election to his fellow finalists. But he didn't say during yesterday's conference call whether he envisions hiring any of the other candidates for a position in the union leadership. A source said some players would like to see Vincent hired as a union executive. Vincent was viewed by many players as the favorite for the executive director's job, but his candidacy was plagued by a string of controversies that included an allegation he improperly disclosed confidential information about agents to a business partner.

Smith said he planned to speak to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later in the day.

"It is my hope that our first conversation about the collective bargaining issue starts today," Smith said.

Smith inherits the NFL's long-standing labor peace, but it is a peace that could be imperiled soon. The owners voted last year to exercise a reopener clause in their collective bargaining agreement with the players, ending it two years early. The labor deal now runs through the 2010 season; the 2009 season is the final one in the agreement with a salary cap. Before his death, Upshaw predicted the owners would consider a lockout of the players in 2011.

Smith said he agreed with Upshaw's longtime stance that if a season without a salary cap is played, the players never will allow a salary cap back in the sport. He hinted he will use his familiarity with the ways of Capitol Hill -- he served as counsel to Eric H. Holder Jr., the U.S. attorney general, when Holder was the deputy attorney general -- to create negotiating leverage with the league and the owners.

In recent years, many former players have criticized the union and the league for allegedly failing to address their medical and financial needs. Smith said the union, the league and everyone else who benefits economically from the sport must work together to take care of former players.

"We all have a moral obligation to them," Smith said.

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