There has been cautious optimism that a new collective-bargaining agreement can be reached between the NFL’s team owners and the players union prior to any work stoppage in 2021.
But then you remember that the two parties tasked with finding common ground on how all that NFL money will be split up for a decade don’t really care for each other all that much. Or at least they hadn’t in the past. And yes, things have gotten quite personal between the two sides at times.
In a revealing profile in the Washington Post on NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, that tension comes into light even more. Smith was hired in the years leading up to the league’s prior labor strife — the 2011 owners lockout that dragged on most of that summer — and in most ways, it has been his defining event on the job.
As the feature reveals, the players might say they’re unified under Smith’s leadership. That doesn’t mean everyone has agreed with him.
DeMaurice Smith has taken shots at Roger Goodell in the past
Certainly Roger Goodell has been one of Smith’s biggest adversaries. Reality or not, the perception at-large has been that the owners took the players to the cleaners during the last labor deal. That one is set to expire in just over a year, and Smith and the NFL commissioner are expected to go head-to-head again on the next round of negotiations.
Can they put aside their adversarial relationship and find common ground? Perhaps. But there are some harsh words on Goodell by Smith in the story that paint a picture of two men who don’t see eye to eye on much.
Keep in mind that this selected quote is from 2016. That matters. But it’s still incendiary.
“I know Roger Goodell wanted to be here tonight,” Smith joked to the crowd at the union’s 60th anniversary gala in 2016. “However, lying, cheating and stealing is a full-time job.”
So there’s that.
We also learn that Smith apparently is fond of calling the NFL a “cartel.” These are, one might say, fighting words.
Of course, Smith might have some reason to feel this way. He viewed his first meeting with Goodell as a passive-aggressive directive to acquiesce to the league. Smith appears to have dug his heels in from that point.
Not long after he was elected in March 2009, Smith met Goodell at a brasserie in Washington, D.C. The dinner was cordial enough, Smith would recall, but at the end, Goodell slid across the table a lapel pin in the shape of the NFL’s red, white and blue shield. A decade later, Smith, 55, sees the gesture, ostensibly a welcome to the league, as condescending.
Smith even found a copy of a book written by Goodell’s father, “Political Prisoners in America” — written in 1973 by former U.S. senator Charles Goodell — as a countermeasure to what he might be up against in the man who was running the multi-billion-dollar league and clearly backing the owners who have dutifully paid Goodell’s enormous salary.
It didn’t help their relationship when Troy Vincent, who once was an NFLPA leader, joined the league office. So even though Smith said recently that his and Goodell’s relationship has “evolved” and that he respects Goodell as a “formidable” opponent, it’s not hard to see from where the tension arises.
Smith: ‘I’m kind of wired to be combative’
Smith is painted in the story as a hawkish union leader, one who defines his support for his constituents at large but also one whose style has led to some individual arguments. Not everyone who might be pro-union appears to be in lockstep with the former Capitol Hill trial lawyer who had no football experience after playing the sport in high school.
He won the job as executive director more than a decade ago by pitching his 300-page manifesto he referred to as a “war plan,” clearly stirring the players’ suspicion and harnessing their worry over the possibility of getting locked out of work. Smith proved right, with the NFL’s first owner lockout since 1970.
But the previous deal, while earning the players some much-desired additional free time in the offseasons, also netted them only 47 percent of the overall revenue, with the remainder going to the league. That has led to some agents and players to cry that the players got taken to the woodshed last time.
Former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Alex Boone paints Smith as adversarial and overmatched. Another former player, Jason Belser, gave up his 11-year career with the union as a “referendum on the leadership” — a direct shot at Smith. There also are some unnamed agents who rip Smith’s leadership.
Another anecdote in the story indicates that a fan who approached Smith in an airport restaurant, upset over the union’s support for Colin Kaepernick’s protests, ended in Smith “hurling expletives and slinging insults at a total stranger.”
Will any of this matter for the next CBA?
The relationship between Smith and Goodell was viewed as a major storyline during the 2011 negotiations. The men didn’t find a lot of common ground prior to making a deal. And things turned ugly along the way: The two sides allowed leaks to serve as online mudslinging when the negotiations hit a wall.
And the last CBA agreement didn’t end that tension. The players and the league have been at loggerheads over myriad issues since — including Goodell’s long-arm disciplinary reach, the matter of drug testing and yes, the players’ uneven split of the pie.
All of those are on the table now as the two sides have conducted four preliminary negotiation sessions with the goal being to prevent a prolonged work stoppage. The early word on these talks has been that they’ve been moderately cordial and perhaps semi-productive.
But when it comes down to brass tacks, what will happen? If the owners want to push the idea of an 18-game regular-season schedule, which could tap into a vein of another $2.5 billion in annual revenue, how will Smith and the players react? In the past, he has stated that it’s a non-starter, wanting to protect his players’ health and safety. And what if the old tensions between Goodell and Smith smolder?
We can only speculate, of course. There’s no way to know how things will go at the bargaining tables. The hope would be that both men will want to protect their legacies by not having two major roadblocks to football on their resumés. But then again, that idea can get lost in the fog of heated labor war.
We’ve seen each man take a hard stance against the other in the past. It wouldn’t be stunning to see that develop again in a very public — and likely tense — fashion with Round 2 just beginning.
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