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|01-23-2011, 01:14 PM||#1|
A Son of Martha
Join Date: Oct 2008
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Quarterback for a Team of 1,900
Quarterback for a Team of 1,900
By SRIDHAR PAPPU
“WE are at war!” DeMaurice Smith yelled.
Mr. Smith, the hard-charging executive director of the union that represents 1,900 N.F.L. players, was pacing in a conference room in downtown Washington. Sitting before him were nearly 20 professional players, all recently elected to represent their fellow athletes.
They listened as this former federal prosecutor and corporate lawyer called for them to be leaders for their union, the National Football League Players Association. They are facing the unthinkable: no professional football next year if the N.F.L. owners and players cannot reach a collective bargaining agreement by March 3. At this meeting last Tuesday morning, Mr. Smith, known as De, had the attention of the player reps. Although only 5 feet 9 inches tall — diminutive by football standards — he is powerful both in his build and in his ability to command a room. Thoroughly dapper, he took off his black-and-white pinstriped suit jacket — with its pocket-square flair — and weaved in and out among them, his voice ever rising.
“Nobody gets strong without fighting,” Mr. Smith, 46, said to the players. “Nobody stays strong without fighting. Nobody negotiates their way to strength. Nobody talks their way to a good deal. Nobody sits down and just has miraculous things happen.”
He will need his eloquence and toughness in the coming months. Talks with the league are at an impasse, though the union has pledged that its members will not strike. This leaves Mr. Smith with the task of standing against the owners, who appear ready to lock out their players, as he fights the owners’ demands for more regular-season games and against the players’ giving up 18 percent of the revenue — $1 billion — that the N.F.L. shares with them.
More than a month earlier, in slightly better spirits, Mr. Smith took the Acela train from Washington to an N.F.L.P.A. event in Philadelphia. Held at the Water Works Restaurant and Lounge near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and paid for by the restaurant’s owner, the gathering had all the gaudy fanfare that surrounds an N.F.L. stadium on a Sunday. As stiff winds blew off the Schuylkill River, fans stood outside, drinking around fire pits glowing in the darkness while they waited for barbecue. Inside, the staff wore Philadelphia Eagles jerseys as a man dressed like Captain Morgan, the face of the rum brand, hammed it up with a group of scantily clad women called “Morganettes.”
The event was to be a show of fan support for the union. But it was really a chance for Mr. Smith to mingle with other labor leaders, whom he has actively courted since taking the job in 2009.
Eager to impress a few Teamsters from Local 384 near Philadelphia, wearing blue union jackets and drinking beer, Mr. Smith boasted: “I’m having dinner with Jimmy. He’s taught me a lot.” Jimmy is James P. Hoffa, the longtime Teamsters union president and son of the labor leader who disappeared in 1975.
It was not posturing. For months now, Mr. Smith has sought the counsel of traditional labor powers, like Leo W. Gerard, the United Steelworkers president. Mr. Gerard said he was surprised because Gene Upshaw, the former head of the players’ union, “sat only a few seats away from me at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and very, very rarely would he make any comments about forming alliances with any of the groups in the room.”
Mr. Smith says such relationships are important. “The N.F.L. at every step has done everything to drive this union out of business,” he said. “So when we get in times of labor fights, you quickly look around to who your friends are, and organized labor has always been there for those who’ve gotten their fingers dirty and broken their nose doing their job. Disparity never enters the picture.”
STANDING in the crowd at the Waterworks event was Ellis Hobbs, a defensive back for the Eagles. On Nov. 21, while returning the second-half kickoff against the New York Giants, Mr. Hobbs suffered a helmet-to-helmet blow. He fell to the ground, unable to move for 10 minutes. He left the field on a stretcher, giving a thumbs-up to the fans, but his season had ended because of a neck injury. Now he was at the center of the restaurant as young girls and older men approached him, patting him on the shoulder, seeking his autograph, asking how he felt and telling him to take care of himself.
“It gets old,” Mr. Hobbs said. “But it could be worse. I’m up and walking and talking.”
In many ways, Mr. Hobbs’s injury is at the center of the union’s impasse with the league. Before the start of the season, the N.F.L. floated the idea of expanding the regular season to 18 games from the 16 played now. Having more games, of course, means more chances of both drastic injuries and routine bodily abuse inflicted on the players.
When the union and its players talk about concussions and traumatic injuries, it is not in terms of the frightening collisions that leave men like Mr. Hobbs motionless. Rather, they talk about the number of impact points, those moments when N.F.L. players move fast and aggressively to hit one another, whether in a game or practice. When it comes to many players’ health, the best it will ever be is on the first day of training camp. Most regulars will play very little in preseason games, sparing their bodies for the punishing season ahead.
This year, according to the union, 352 players were placed on injured reserve, ending their seasons. While fans might revel in violent hits, there is only so much that an N.F.L. player can physically stand. Bone fractures, torn cartilage and tendinitis are standard in the N.F.L.
“Anytime a star player or the 53rd guy on the practice squad runs the risk of getting hurt, it’s not good for the player, and it’s not good for the game.” said Kevin Mawae, the N.F.L.P.A. president and a former All-Pro center.
The league, headed by Commissioner Roger Goodell, says that more games would strengthen the N.F.L. brand. In theory, a normal N.F.L. season is 20 games — including four preseason games that often don’t stir much fan interest. First-string players often see little action in these summertime contests, as their backups (and the backups’ backups) fight for spots on the roster. Near the end of even an exciting preseason game, it’s not rare to see a listless, nearly empty stadium.
The league wants to turn two of those preseason contests into regular-season games. “We would take two games that are low-quality, difficult to sell and meet high-resistance from your customer and change them into much more attractive, higher-value games that would benefit the fans and financially benefit players,” said Jeff Pash, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president and legal counsel. “You could have more than a once-a-year game in London, for example. You could start going into foreign markets. And who knows, maybe you’d even have teams in these locations, which would mean more jobs, more revenue, more growth.”
Mr. Smith says he is in favor of growth as long as the players’ interests are protected. While owners have financial risks, he says, the players risk much more, including their health.
|01-23-2011, 01:15 PM||#2|
A Son of Martha
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: Mesa, Arizona
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Re: Quarterback for a Team of 1,900
He cited the suits filed by the N.F.L. against former players over disputes about worker compensation claims.
Many players leave football as uninsured men, unable to find coverage for pre-existing conditions they suffered playing the game. For those who do meet minimum qualifications — being on a team for three consecutive games for three consecutive years — the league’s plan provides only five years of post-career health benefits.
“The economics of football remain pretty basic when it comes to issue of the careers of players,” Mr. Smith said. “Fundamentally the business model in football is, players trade what they can do physically and mentally for compensation.”
WITHIN days of being approached for the union job, Mr. Smith turned to the writings of Marvin Miller, the labor economist who moved from the United Steelworkers union in the late 1960s to lead the Major League Baseball Players Association. As an outsider schooled in organized labor, not baseball, Mr. Miller spent the early days of his tenure explaining their rights, or lack of them, to the players in a system that limited not only their salaries but where they could play.
After negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement for his union, Mr. Miller went on to lead it through several strikes and lockouts and forced the owners to accept a system allowing for free agency, which lets players move from one team to another once they’ve accumulated six years of major-league service. He transformed the players association not only into the most powerful sports union, but arguably into America’s most powerful union, period.
“When it comes to this job, he remains my idol,” Mr. Smith said. “He walks into a union that did not have a significant amount of information coming to the players, he had a very hostile reception from management, and what he brought to the players was the meat and potatoes of what organized labor unions do.”
But it is inevitable that Mr. Smith will instead be compared with Mr. Upshaw, the N.F.L.P.A. chief who died in 2008. He and Paul J. Tagliabue, the former N.F.L. commissioner, seemed to backslap their way from agreement to agreement. Their easy relationship over a quarter-century firmly entrenched the N.F.L. as the pre-eminent professional sport in America.
Everyone benefited. An average N.F.L. player today makes $1.7 million a season. According to Forbes, the average N.F.L. franchise is now worth $1.02 billion. Because of salary caps and revenue sharing of national TV broadcasts, a team’s home market has proved irrelevant to its on-field success. The Green Bay Packers, tucked away in a minor media market, can compete with teams from New York and Chicago. In fact, the Packers battle the Bears in Chicago on Sunday for a spot in the Super Bowl.
But that period of N.F.L. peace has officially ended. In addition to fighting over shifting to 18 games, owners want $1 billion back from the players and a wage scale for first-year players.
The two sides can’t even agree on the amount of revenue they are fighting over, much less how it is distributed. The league says it is splitting revenue 60-40 in favor of the players, just as Mr. Upshaw boasted about when the last contract was reached in March 2006. But for months, the union has said that its members get only about 50 percent of the estimated $9 billion the N.F.L. brings in annually, and that it wants more financial transparency.
The owners, meanwhile, also like to hammer home the income disparity between the average player’s compensation and the $51,425 median annual household income of a typical N.F.L. fan. The union is quick to remind people that many owners are billionaires.
Mr. Smith, of course, defends the players’ pay. “Our players are fortunate to work in a business where they are compensated in ways unimaginable to other people their age,” he said. But he makes a larger point: “There is no free market in football. It’s a monopoly. You either play in this league at the highest level or you can’t play anywhere else.”
The league also contends that a lack of revenue in the current system has hindered teams’ abilities to build, maintain and operate new stadiums. “We have never said the N.F.L. is not a viable business,” Mr. Pash said. “We have never said the N.F.L. is a money-losing business. But it’s no accident that no new stadium project has started since this agreement has taken place in 2006.”
In other words, owners say, the game is healthy but could be healthier for everyone.
To many N.F.L. watchers, the current gridlock seems unfathomable, and a potential lockout almost unreal.
“The game’s popularity is at an all-time high and we’ve managed to not have a work stoppage all these years and I don’t see why we would have one now,” said Drew Rosenhaus, the boisterous N.F.L. super-agent who counts the equally outspoken wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco among his clients. “But I’m preparing all of my clients for the lockout and telling them to take it very seriously.”
MR. SMITH’S office is in Upshaw Place, the union’s headquarters in Washington; he sits not far from a scuffed, scarred helmet that Mr. Upshaw wore in his pro career. But Mr. Smith tends to tiptoe around the subject of his predecessor’s close relationship with management.
“When people talked about the model in the past, that Gene and Paul had such a great relationship so they were able to make these deals work out, well, neither of those guys is here anymore,” he said.
But Mr. Upshaw alienated many retired N.F.L. players who wanted better benefits and more respect. When asked about retired players in 2006, Mr. Upshaw said, “The bottom line is, I don’t work for them.”
Mr. Smith — who often describes his interests as defending those who “play, have played and will play” football — has made a point to extend a hand to N.F.L. alumni by adding two seats for former players on the union executive committee, as well as combining meetings of active player representatives with those representing former players.
As a corporate lawyer at Patton Boggs, the high-powered Washington firm, Mr. Smith dealt with companies that were either “in crisis or were about to be.” As a candidate for the N.F.L.P.A. job, he composed what he called “Playbook: An Enterprise Philosophy to Maximize the Business and Political Interest of the N.F.L.P.A.” “About 60 percent of it,” he said, “was envisioning what the chances were of a lockout and what to do to prepare for it.”
It was a useful exercise. “The only bad thing is that everything we thought and contemplated the league would do they’ve done,” Mr. Smith said.
The prospect of a lockout has only increased in recent months. During the first full week in January, when reports spread that ESPN was ready to extend its “Monday Night Football” contract for $2 billion a year beginning in 2014, the union was already taking legal action, arguing that the N.F.L. had wrongfully entered into new television agreements to create a lockout fund for owners. The N.F.L. gets $1.935 billion a year from its three network partners, $1.1 billion from ESPN and $1 billion from DirecTV for its “Sunday Ticket” package.
“De Smith is in a very difficult situation,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a sports consulting firm. “You want to start strong out of the gate, but Gene negotiated a deal that was very one-sided for the players. But now Gene’s gone and De’s going to have to go back to the players with what might be a lesser deal — not in the long term but certainly in the short term.”
MR. SMITH, who grew up in Washington, played high school football, but never a professional sport. He began his law career in Washington prosecuting criminals for the United States attorney.
“You want drama?” he asked. “Stand up in a courtroom and be a prosecutor with a guy who just killed four people, set his girlfriend on fire and then shot her in the back of the head twice and you know if you lose this, he goes back on the street. How do you sleep at night? Good? I did because I knew I was going to do the best I could to win.”
He says he intends to do his best for the union, too. In speaking to the player reps, he said the owners “always ask me, ‘What can you sell to the players?’ Sell to them? I work for them!”
He was on a roll. “How condescending of a world is it where every time we sit down with these guys they say to us, ‘What do you think you can sell?’ ” Mr. Smith asked.
He told them: “Love what you love and do what you do. We’re in the business of football.”
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