That Must Have Been Some Presentation

Posted on Categories Labor & Employment Law, Sports & Law

The NFL Players Association new executive director, DeMaurice Smith (left), “wowed . . . player representatives with an hour long presentation,” but prior to his election was “a relative unknown quantity in NFL circles,” according to a report by Sports Illustrated‘s Don Banks. Prior to his election, Smith was a “trial and litigation partner at Patton Boggs who concentrat[ed] in white-collar criminal defense and ‘bet the company’ tort liability trials.”

So, a white-collar defense attorney who was a relative unknown in NFL circles is now leading the NFLPA into an uncertain future that features a collective bargaining agreement that expires in 2011, a year without a salary cap in 2010 (under the terms of the current CBA), and an uncertain (at best) worldwide economic climate.

I don’t know that Smith wasn’t the best choice, but I do know that the other candidates — former players Trace Armstrong and Troy Vincent and sports attorney David Cornwell — had strong ties to the NFL. Armstrong and Vincent both are former NFLPA presidents. Cornwell represented several NFL players in a federal lawsuit against the NFL seeking an injunction preventing the NFL from suspending the players for violating the NFL’s drug policy.

I’m skeptical that this is the right time for the NFLPA to bring in an outsider. The NFLPA is only looking for a new executive director because of the unexpected death of Gene Upshaw, who led the NFLPA for twenty-five years. Smith is seemingly taking a hard line with the NFL on the upcoming negotiations and is already talking of “prepar[ing] for war” and “not go[ing] back” to a salary cap if the 2010 season is played without one. Hopefully, Smith’s presentation went beyond hard-line rhetoric and laid out a plan that will ensure the labor peace and economic prosperity that are Upshaw’s legacies. As a fan of the NFL (the Packers, not the Steelers, sorry Professor Schneider), I hope the players made the correct choice for their executive director.

3 thoughts on “That Must Have Been Some Presentation”

  1. It was never really clear to me why Cornwell wasn’t seriously considered; I heard rumblings from columnists that there was some issue that the player representatives didn’t like, but no one really said what it was.

    However, with Vincent and Armstrong, it was painfully clear. Armstrong was tainted by accusations that he was one of the people anonymously bashing Upshaw a few months before he passed away, that — were he not a former player — he never would have made it this far. And Vincent? Yes, he has some experience, and, yes, he was essentially groomed to be Upshaw’s replacement, but he was never going to be able to dodge the whole “leaking of confidential information” (and, frankly, his proclamations of the unintentional nature of this ring a little hollow; even if he didn’t know it was attached, he SHOULD have known in this day and age). Plus, the fact remains that there was a great divide between Armstrong backers and Vincent backers, so it was easy to see that someone was going to step into the divide.

    Your point about it being preferable for an ex-player to head the NFLPA does have merit, but personally I think all that should matter is that this person genuinely cares about fighting for the interests of the players. Frankly, with the terrible way retired players are taken care of pension-wise, it might actually be better that the person who runs the NFLPA ISN’T someone who was a recent player. I’ll say this, though: Smith absolutely made the right first step in trying to get Tony Dungy to fill the newly-created position of NFLPA-NFL liason; it shows he knows enough to surround himself with intelligent well-respected NFL alumni who can get things done.

  2. I didn’t (or at least didn’t mean to) suggest that an ex-player would have been a better choice — more that an NFL “insider” would have been a better choice, in large part because an insider would have a base of knowledge about the NFL, its politics, and the current state of the labor/management relationship. After Smith’s election, the NFLPA has someone completely new to the situation in charge. A clean slate can be both a good and a bad thing. I wonder if Smith’s lack of existing relationships with the powers-that-be on both sides, as well as a lack of day-to-day experience with the relevant issues will be a good thing or a bad thing. Smith’s status as an outsider could bring a fresh perspective to the bargaining table or add another hurdle to what is shaping up to be a contentious negotiation.

  3. While I am delighted that a fellow alum of the University of Virginia Law School is now head of the NFLPA, I think Dee Smith was the beneficiary of the meltdown of Gene Upshaw during his final years at the helm. Seemingly embroiled in an endless battle with many of his peers for the AFL and NFL wars of the 1960’s and 70’s over the treatment of older players, Upshaw not only lost credibility personally, but his conduct also raised questions about the appropriateness of any football insider in that position. The men who made the Major League Baseball Players Association the most powerful sports union in history–Marvin Miller, Dick Moss, Gene Orza, and Donald Fehr–did come from baseball backgrounds. They were economists and lawyers. I think Smith was selected of his main competitors, two former players and sports attorney David Cornwell, precisedly because he had no background in professional sports. But he did have an impressive track record of success as a federal prosector, large firm litigator, and adjunct law professor.

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