A Surprise Replacement For Upshaw

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: March 19, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — The 2008 NFL Season was all about unpredictability and the trend continued this weekend in Hawaii as Washington, D.C. lawyer DeMaurice Smith, pulled a monumental upset by winning a secret ballot vote to replace the late Gene Upshaw as the NFL Players Association’s (NFLPA) new Executive Director.

Smith, a 45-year old partner at the law firm Patton Boggs, was a relative unknown going into the March 15th vote. But he beat out three higher-profile candidates including former NFLPA Presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong plus attorney David Cornwell in voting by player representatives from the NFL’s 32 franchises.

All along most NFL media, including myself, thought that the NFLPA membership’s vote would come down to Vincent or Armstrong as both former players each had extensive backing from a variety of quarreling NFL factions.

However after the player representatives heard from all four candidates — March 14th initial candidate presentations and March 15th closing remarks — they selected the fresh voiced D.C. based corporate attorney as their captain in the boardroom.

Buffalo Bills player representative and defensive back George Wilson recently said of the selection of Smith, “His energy is impressive and he was very prepared in a way that you could see why he has been such a successful attorney”.

The selection of Smith now means that NFL players will call a non-player their lead representative — the first since Ed Garvey left office in 1983 — just like the three other major sports’ player associations.

Hopefully Smith is up to the challenge of righting an organization that was once deemed “the weakest union in modern sports”, because there is a litany of landmine issues that the NFLPA will face in the near future.

Legally charged issues include an expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 (the current CBA pays players nearly 60% of football revenues that exceed $6 billion per year according to the owners), a looming uncapped year in 2010, players benefits, retiree rights/benefits, an economy where everyone including the NFL is struggling, a possible rookie salary cap, player marketing, television contracts, player conduct and so much more there is not enough space to write them all down.

However Smith, a frequent commentator on MSNBC’s Hardball, has said his new position is a “calling” which leads you to believe he is going to roll his sleeves up to tackle the many challenges facing the NFLPA.

NFL players by voting-in Smith, who by his own admission has never been in an NFL lockerrooom, decided that their union should be more about the “unity” of players (past and present) while keeping an eye on the “business” side of football rather than politicking, mudslinging, and living in the past (See the Upshaw regime and the campaigns of Vincent and Armstrong).

Much like current President Barack Obama, who has reported ties to the new NFLPA Executive Director, Smith gave NFL players “Change They Could Believe In”. Smith recently said in an USA Today interview, “To say that (the NFLPA Executive Director job) is purely a labor and management play is to miss about six or seven dominant issues that make up the business of the NFL each and every day”.

The former University of Virginia Law School graduate has been on the frontlines of corporate business law for years, including working with current U.S Attorney General Eric Holder, so you know he will be right at home talking the “business” of football.

And let’s not fool ourselves, the National Football League is all about “big” billion dollar corporate business. Now the players will have a litigious voice representing them at the table with billionaires like Jerry Jones, Pat Bowlen, and Jeffrey Lurie.

I don’t know about you, but I finding it refreshing that the new NFLPA head will be about handling “business” and representing his constituency rather than making back-door agreements that may not be for the good of the organization.

Wilson added, “He’s the man, it’s a new day in the `PA.’ So now the play-clock begins on the Smith Era of the NFLPA and it will be interesting to see if the new Executive Director has an amicable or disagreeable relationship with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners he represents.

For now Smith is firmly at the helm of the NFLPA and he will need to stiff-arm the NFL’s many challenges that seem as mammoth as William “The Refrigerator” Perry to guide his players over the goal-line.