Mr. Smith goes to the negotiating table

In March, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) made an historic move by electing Washington D.C. power attorney DeMaurice Smith as their new executive director, and skeptics wondered if this was the right time for the union to bring an outsider into a leadership role. All eyes will be watching as he begins negotiation with the NFL on a new labor contract this week in New York.

Smith wowed the NFLPA’s board with an hour-long presentation detailing his plan for their upcoming collective bargaining sessions, as he promised to use his Congressional friends to challenge the league’s long-standing anti-trust exemption in order to obtain a better deal.

The owners have believed for a long time that the players’ cut of the revenue pie has been too big for too long, and opted out of the current agreement last year, which almost guarantees that there will be no salary cap for the 2010 season. With concerns of a slowing economy, the owners feel that escalating salaries within the league could impact the revenue stream for several clubs.

Smith recognizes the economic challenges facing the league, and has requested the NFL to open each team’s financial books. The league’s negotiating team has rejected his request and claims the union has enough information to secure a fair deal.

Many NFL insiders feel the league is at a disadvantage in this upcoming labor negotiation due to the fact that Smith is an unknown entity. He speaks like a politician (insisting on calling the players “businessmen”) and promises the union will maintain a hard line stance in the upcoming labor negotiations.

Everyone involved expects to play football in 2010, albeit without a salary cap, but Smith warns the owners that no new agreement will include a salary cap if the 2010 season is played without one. There is a good possibility that some form of a work stoppage will take place in 2011, either in the form of a players’ strike or an owners’ lockout prior to the start of training camp. Smith pointed out that a lockout would hurt not only the players, but the people and businesses that rely heavily on the NFL to make a living.

If the NFLPA had hired an insider that had a better understanding of the league’s politics and the current state of the labor/management relationship, many believe both parties would find common ground for a new agreement and the NFL would continue to flourish. But this isn’t the feeling anymore, as Smith encourages the players to prepare for war inside the board room.

It should be an interesting negotiation.

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