Decertification was failing strategy by NFLPA

DeMaurice Smith (right) with Colts player representative Jeff Saturday

For all of his shouting and table pounding and proclamations that the NFL Players Association "went to the mattresses" with the NFL, here is where DeMaurice Smith has his decertified union two months into the lockout: about to argue a case it will probably not win in a labor battle his constituents will soon tire of fighting.

The NFLPA's rhetoric in the months leading up to this spring's work stoppage never matched the issues. Nothing was serious enough to warrant a shutdown. Nobody will ache for the rookies who won't get $40 million guaranteed in whatever new deal emerges, while the splitting of $1 billion in a league that has made so many rich is hardly a horrible problem to have. And yet the leaders of the players union were dying to decertify as far back as 2008, apparently screening executive director candidates on their willingness to push the nuclear option.

So now we are mired in the doldrums as each side waits to go through the motions with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, a body that has already signaled its intent to uphold the lockout. All of this is less a legal wrangle – if it ever was one – than a bout between egos tussling to see who can claim momentum and thus a victory before sitting down to the negotiations which could have been done in March.

At stake is only the football season.

The blame for this lockout should be shared equally. Fingers have rightly been pointing at the NFL's owners for starting this mess. They are easy to hate right now, complaining of weak annual returns while sitting on civic assets worth north of $1 billion in some cases. In many instances, they extorted their communities for gleaming stadiums which only helped to fatten their wallets. They cut a labor deal they never wanted in 2006 to protect Paul Tagliabue's legacy, then blew it up two years later, attempting to illegally squirrel away television money as a lockout fund.

Still, to scream at the owners while ignoring the NFLPA leaders' behavior in the sandbox is misguided, for the NFLPA pushed this drive to the cliff in the final days of civility. Back when Judge David Doty ruled the NFL couldn't collect its lockout stash from the television networks, the players were gaining momentum. They got the owners to bend. The owners even agreed to show parts of their books. It wasn't everything, but it was something more than they offered before – a real sign of progress – only to have the players reject the attempt.

One source with knowledge of the negotiations said the message delivered by the players' leadership was that the show of demanding the owners' books had become too valuable a PR move to give up. Then, after threatening to blow up the talks with decertification and lawsuits, they did just that – leaving many to wonder if this is what they wanted to do all along.

But why? Decertifying and getting the courts to rule the lockout illegal was always a long shot. The Eighth Circuit loomed with a history of favoring business in labor matters. Yes, the union won free agency in a similar fashion in the early 1990s. It became a big part of the narrative of the NFLPA's previous leader, Gene Upshaw, who often spoke fondly of those days. And it became a great selling point to the players, who have never had the stomach for a true labor dispute the way their colleagues in other sports have. What wasn't peddled nearly as well was a very real risk that the court option would slam into a wall, cornering the players and leaving them with nowhere else to turn.

"Look at it this way: If the union loses a decertification lawsuit, then it has gone and shot everything it has," said Michael Cramer, director of the University of Texas Sports and Media program, who went through labor disputes in baseball and hockey. "You drew a 13 at the blackjack table and now you've got to go back to the negotiating table with nothing. Who would have bet they'd win a decertification lawsuit? You just don't do it."

Cramer, who was part of a group that looked seriously at buying at least two NFL teams in recent years, is amazed the labor situation has gone this far – shaking his head at the actions of both players and owners who are fronted by leaders so desperate to establish their dominance.

"This is so unbelievably easy to solve – that would be if there was leadership on either side," Cramer said. "This is a contract that should be agreed to tomorrow. That these two goofballs [Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell] are waiting around for the courts to tell them what to do to get this solved is crazy."

Then again, the NFLPA – which has spent heavily on outside legal fees in recent years – loves litigation. It always seemed the preferred weapon of Upshaw, who was criticized later in life for ignoring important issues such as disability and retirement benefits in favor of quick and easy revenue increases which keep current players happy. Smith was supposed to represent a change from those days.

Instead, we get bizarre moments such as his recent address to graduates at the University of Maryland, in which he ended an otherwise inspiring speech by pleading with the students to scream "You suck!" in an imitation of the drunken louts at Terrapin and Washington Redskins games.

"And for anybody who would ever think that it is the wrong thing to do to care so much that you're willing to risk everything because it is right, reserve those two words for them," he said to the crowd as graduates and parents stared dumbfounded.

Let's hope the owners and players are secretly negotiating even as the court date looms, because it's hard to believe the players are going to want to "risk everything" on oversized blather and a Hail Mary they had little chance to complete.