Drew Rosenhaus went to his NFLPA arbitration armed with lawyers referred by union head DeMaurice Smith

By Rand Getlin and Jason Cole

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith referred long-time former colleagues to defend Drew Rosenhaus during an NFLPA arbitration, Yahoo! Sports has learned.

That action has ruffled the feathers of multiple prominent agents who spoke to Yahoo! Sports on the condition of anonymity, expressing frustration at what they termed a significant conflict of interest. The agents have alleged that Smith’s referral – essentially aiding Rosenhaus in defending himself before an NFLPA arbitrator – is a clear example of Smith protecting an agent rather than impartially governing.

“It’s a major conflict of interest for the executive director of the NFLPA to be referring attorneys to Rosenhaus,” one agent said.

The paramount issue at hand is that the NFLPA may eventually have to sanction Rosenhaus in his case, which involves a dispute between the well-known agent and former employee Danny Martoe. Martoe was a longtime employee of Rosenhaus Sports Representation before being fired in 2012. He is now seeking more than $1 million in commissions and damages stemming from his work with Rosenhaus.

Union spokesman George Atallah confirmed to Yahoo! Sports that Smith referred attorneys to Rosenhaus, but noted that Smith regularly extends the courtesy of providing attorney referrals to others as well.

The fact that Smith assists others has not dispelled angst in parts of the agent community, largely because of the perception that the union is protecting Rosenhaus.

“He’s walking an extremely tight rope by referring an attorney friend of his to an agent in a situation like this,” another prominent agent said of Smith’s actions. “To me, there is no question that it’s an out-of-bounds move given his position as union president. Especially in a matter that’s going to be heard by the union.”

One of Rosenhaus’s attorneys, Danny Onarato, worked with Smith at the U.S. Attorneys Office in Washington, D.C. Smith also co-represented a criminal defendant with another of Rosenhaus’ attorneys – David Dickieson – in 2007. And when Smith was appointed to the head of the NFLPA, the union retained Onarato’s firm to provide the union with "professional services," paying the firm $6,525.

While the matter currently being heard before the NFLPA arbitrator is a fee dispute between Rosenhaus and Martoe, a number of issues have arisen during the course of arbitration that call into question whether Rosenhaus has violated NFLPA regulations. Should violations be found, Rosenhaus could then be using attorneys referred by Smith to defend himself against the union president’s own sanctioning body.

“Certainly, it would be a lot cleaner if Drew would retain representation clear of the Players Association,” agent Jim Steiner told Yahoo! Sports. “It would appear there could be an opening to criticize the player’s association for conflict of interest if [the union president] recommended counsel in a matter that is overseen by the NFL Players Association. It doesn’t mean there is a conflict, but the potential is there.”

Longtime agent Ralph Cindrich echoed Steiner, noting Smith’s potential involvement in the punitive phase of agent oversight. Should Rosenhaus be found to have violated NFLPA rules, Cindrich suggested that Smith would have to recuse himself from any part of the disciplinary process involving the agent.

“How De gets out of the seeming conflict is that if something else comes up about Drew, he would simply recuse himself,” Cindrich said. “Is it proper? Does it raise a question of impropriety? It has to. It’s a very good question to debate and consider.

“If there are people who say that De should never have gotten involved in that, I would probably agree with that point of view. But I don't necessarily think it’s automatically a conflict. It’s how De handles it.”