The executive director of the NFL Players Association was one of the faces of the war on football, as he was pitted against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a fight most fans felt was frivolous and greed-driven. After four-plus months of negotiation, arguing, harsh words and threats, the players and owners finally came to a deal.
Did Smith feel triumph, having accomplished a goal that looked near impossible just a few months ago? Did he feel pride, having stood his ground, never wavering to the pressure, and never blinking, while knowing that had any football time be missed, he would be the scapegoat?
Although he probably wouldn’t admit it, I bet Smith felt relief. Relief that his confidence (which at times was mistaken for arrogance) and unwillingness to waver to the owners led to a resolution that was good for the players, good for the NFL, and ultimately good for Smith.
When this lockout began, many felt it would just be a matter of time before the players caved. The owners sign the checks and the players could only hold out for so long before the missed paychecks caught up with them.
The owners did all they could to manipulate the situation in their favor. They wanted more money, longer seasons, and more control of the athletes. When Smith said they were “at war” six months ago, he wasn’t kidding.
But as the months of negotiation went on, Smith stayed calm. He formed a working relationship with his biggest adversary in Goodell, and refused to relent on the most important sticking points.
While the owners did get back some money, Smith helped the players get crucial benefits. They now receive 55 percent of future television revenue, which seems to grow exponentially each year. Minimum salaries increased $55,000 over 2010, giving more money to veteran players that have earned it.
Smith brokered a deal that addressed the biggest concern facing current players: safety. This new deal puts stringent restrictions on just how long players have to practice in the off-season.
The deal also addresses the biggest concern facing former players: security. This new deal will provide hundreds of millions of dollars to retired players through the length of the agreement.The fans won in this deal because we get football again. The owners and players both won, as this deal is fair for both sides. But the biggest winner of all may be Smith. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King had this to say of Smith:
I think the guy that is validated in my opinion is De. Smith. When he got this job, a lot of people in the NFL scoffed at him because he never had any experience in big labor negotiations, never had any sports experience except having season tickets to the Redskins’ games. Everyone in the NFL, no matter how long this lasted, they were going to come back and be fine. But I think De. Smith was being judged very closely on the kind of deal he got in this deal.
Smith is clearly a very smart and articulate guy, and this deal will be part of his resume and legacy as he moves forward in his career.
Before getting this position, Smith had ties to President Obama, and was a highly successful lawyer. If Smith decides to go back to practicing full-time, he should have no trouble getting hired. He also could also parlay his newfound celebrity into a political career.
What’s also important is that Smith, an African-American man in a tremendous position of power, never wavered. Whereas former and late NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue formed a friendship, Smith and Goodell were anything but friends when this all began. Smith knew when to be testy, but more importantly, when to be cordial, forming a bond with Goodell in the past month that was vital in getting the deal done.
Smith proved that you can stand up to Goliath and come out a winner. There’s a big difference between being combative and understanding, and Smith showed sometimes you have to be both to get what you want. In the end Smith got what the players and fans wanted…more football.
We all should feel pretty good about that.