Jockbeat: Class Struggles at the Scrimmage Line


You haven’t been reading much about the beginning of the NFL’s labor talks, and that’s a pretty good indication that you’re going to be reading a lot more about it by this time next year. So get primed now.

First, there’s a new sheriff in town, DeMaurice Smith — or De Smith, as he calls himself — and he’s the man who replaced the late Gene Upshaw as the head of the NFL Players Association (a post he had held for 25 years). Everyone agrees that Upshaw was a terrific guy who lent players money and was well regarded by the NFL owners. But his critics, including many union members, contended that he wasn’t tough enough in negotiations with the owners.

Smith has no labor law experience, but he has political ties to President Obama and has worked with Attorney General Eric Holder. He has a reputation as an ace trial lawyer and was a partner at the prestigious Washington-based firm Patton Boggs, where he chaired the firm’s government investigations and white-collar practice group. He’ll find plenty to investigate in his new job…

Simply put, the primary issue is that the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement that was scheduled to extend through
the 2013 season, citing financial problems and saying they have to renegotiate. Rather than trying to make a mere arm tackle, Smith has
done what a union head is supposed to do in this situation: he’s blitzed the owners by asking them to prove their financial problems by
submitting audited financial statements. This means nothing less than that Smith wants the owners to open their books and prove financial
hardship. So far the owners have stalled. It’s a tactic that baseball fans who follow their sport’s labor problems are quite familiar with: management complains of declining revenues and, when challenged to back up their claims, goes into delay-of-game mode.

Why is it important now? Because according to the current basic agreement, a settlement must be reached by next March or the season will be played without a salary cap. This could cost all the owners a sizeable chunk of change when it comes to renegotiating contracts, signing free agents and even making deals with next year’s draft picks. No doubt the owners are currently pressing Commissioner Roger Goodell to work a settlement as quickly as possible, but that won’t be easy with a savvy union chief like “The De,” who unlike Gene Upshaw does not intend to go into a new series of talks simply to be told by ownership how much his union is going to give back.