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Smith guiding NFLPA in frightening direction

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Posted May 20, 2011 @ 2:02 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

The NFL's labor mess can be looked at, dissected and analyzed a million different ways.

The great irony? Most of the people we write for on a daily basis — the millions of football fans worldwide — couldn't give a rat's tail about most of it. They don't, to steal a line from NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, dig it.

Tough challenge there. There are some fascinating aspects of this case, the movement of which could shape future labor battles — including those in each of the other three major sports in this country. This thing is huge, really, and Smith knows it as well as everyone else embroiled in this conflict. The problem? Most people are not interested in courtroom drama, the non-TV kind anyway. They want results.

But one particular element of the lockout is starting to become harder to ignore by the day. As we plunge headlong into the third month of the lockout, some story lines are beginning to crystallize, to the point now where it doesn't take a law degree to understand them.

Allow me to make one thing clear before I launch into my own argument: I am not taking sides in this battle. I don't have a horse in this race. I, like all of you, just want to see it end. The endless rumors, speculation, injunctions, appeals, proposals and public posturing … it has become a plague.

Only one party has won so far in this nonsense: the lawyers. I have nothing against them, either, mind you, except that usually when they win, someone else tends to be losing. You get the drift.

So as I remind you that I am impartial and disinterested in this battle, aiming only at seeking the truth in these foggy, grey times, I also must say that I have little understanding of the direction the NFLPA has taken recently. As in somewhat off the rails.

You can make the (factually correct) argument that the NFL owners and the league office are the ones who started this battle. They most certainly did. But you know what? They had every right to. Stupid as they might be, as greedy as they no doubt are, they had that right.

Labor law isn't pretty stuff, and it never has been designed to be. Really, in comparison, this fight has been tame when you look at, say, the air traffic controllers' strike of 1981 or, more recently, the Wisconsin teachers' strike that became a national point of contention.

A recent story on AOL Daily Finance summed that latter case up: "Labor unions have an image problem. Once seen as the staunch defender of America's most helpless workers, they've begun to appear bloated and unwieldy. A force more bent on robbing the general public than on helping its members. Recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie succinctly summarized the general perception of unions, arguing that they are 'Trying to break the middle class.' "

That's not specifically what the NFL labor crisis is about, per se, but Smith and the former union — remember, they decertified — are trying just as hard to break the owners who are trying to cash in and break them.

I understand the players' fight. I get what they are trying to do. They have as big a stake in this fight as anyone. It's the "how" part I am struggling with.

I also should point out that all is not as it seems at times in these legal battles. Almost everything that each side has done throughout this tiresome process has been done with careful calculation and with a specific end in mind. This has been the union's game plan since Smith took office. What somebody says today doesn't always get put into action tomorrow. But some of it holds water, and we have to hold those folks accountable for their actions.

Smith was elected as the leader of this union back in 2009, primarily I believe, because the players bought into the fact that he was far more qualified than the other finalists for the position — former players and union presidents Trace Armstrong and Troy Vincent, as well as sports attorney David Cornwell — to handle the toe-to-toe labor battle with the NFL that was coming undeniably down the pike.

It was a brilliant campaign strategy. Smith knew that the owners, who already had opted out of the old CBA as soon as they could, who had already tabbed lockout lawyer Bob Batterman as their junkyard dog, who had already renegotiated the TV contracts and who had already sought to remove union-friendly judge David Doty from having jurisdiction from NFL cases, were steamrolling toward a battle with the union. An ugly one at that.

Court is where Smith cut his teeth. The players bought into it, voting him in unanimously to the position of executive director, despite the fact that Smith had few relationships in the league. Many said and wrote that Smith would be the anti-Gene Upshaw, whose relationships from decades in the NFL were what defined his tenure as NFLPA executive director, both for good and bad, even though the outsider Smith has cited Upshaw's leadership and vision several times through his first two years on the job.

What Smith is doing lately, though, defies and belies that talk. The NFLPA has been quick to pounce on anything it deems as being factually erroneous coming from the owners' mouths. But Smith has been guilty of some of the same misleading posturing. On Thursday, he was the keynote speaker at the University of Maryland graduation, and he used the occasion to turn the talk to labor.

"Do we care enough about who we are and who we want to be?" Smith said at the commencement. "The decision to pursue and if necessary fight for what is fair was a decision those players made two years ago. And I've got to tell you, it's vastly different from something as simple as 'shut up and play.' That's not the decision that we made. We made the decision to fight for who we're going to be and who we are."

Fighting is one thing. Skewing the labor battle to a war of words, one neither side can win, is quite another. Did ownership tell Smith and his players 'to shut up and play,' or are those his own words? I highly doubt the former, but it's scary to think that Smith now is campaigning against what the fans want. Really, ask them; they'll tell you. They want both sides to shut up and play.

At the NFL draft in late April, the fans directed a chant of "We want football" at commissioner Roger Goodell, whose approval ratings are hurting as well, just as they did at Smith during the graduation speech. Neither one of those men represents winning in the fans' eyes, only slightly variant grades of losing. The fans see everyone preventing the game from going on as bad people.

Smith carries a powerful voice. He's very smart and well spoken. He also speaks with an edge. He uses scholarly words and talks like a man of letters. But those words are carrying more and more venom and less and less actual purpose. And in some cases, Smith's words are becoming downright misleading.

"(This is the) first league in the history of sports that has ever sued to not play their game. When we reach a time or a moment in history when a professional sports league is suing to not play football, we're in a bad spot," Smith said on Sirius Radio.

Um, remind me again when the league sued to not play this game? They certainly could in time; it's one of the possibilities in this legal jungle. But it was the trade association that filed suit against the owners seeking an injunction against the lockout. The players could do that because they dissolved the union. Smith's miscasting of the situation makes him sound petty. And desperate.

Simply telling it like it is will get his message across. People will see the truth and make their own minds up. Obscuring it is a dangerous and risky move.

This latest ruling in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was not quite the legal hammer blow everyone thinks it was, but it did clearly forecast what the same three judges are likely to do in June: rule against them summarily, even if one judge (the lone dissenter, Judge Kermit Bye) continues to dig in his heels.

But more than court leverage, the players' association appears to be losing in another forum. The fans, who dramatically appeared to be on the players' side at the outset of this battle with the owners, now appear to be shifting away. This doesn't mean they are throwing pity parties for the owners, either, but the public sentiment no longer is weighted heavily toward the players.

I can tell you I personally have heard far more vitriol from players, agents and fans versus the players' association than I ever could have imagined, and for the first time it appears that the level of trust in Smith is diminishing. Many in the media have wanted to paint this fight with broad strokes as good (players) vs. evil (owners), or millionaires vs. billionaires.

The paint apparently is thinning. Many have started to question Smith's leadership and vision — not to mention his increasingly awkward and contentious comments.

While the owners and Goodell are repeatedly bashing us over the heads with the same kind of banal rhetoric — "We need to get back to the negotiation table," etc. — it doesn't make them wrong. Meanwhile, Smith is waging a different type of battle. He's making it personal and ugly.

"The players understand the fight that they're in," Smith said on WFAN (660 AM in New York City). "Right now they don't want to lay down and be forced to take a deal. They don't believe that it's fair. I can tell you that they resent being lied to. They resent being tricked. They resent the fact that the league has been found now twice to have violated the law. So those are the people that we're inextricably tied to."

And the players now are tied to Smith, for better or worse, to help them get back on the field. So far, I am not sure what he has accomplished. He's a tireless worker, union folks tell me, and I have no doubt that he wants a resolution that will benefit the players he represents. But some of his methods are highly questionable.

I won't go so far as to call Smith an interloper, but his lack of NFL relationships probably has hurt him. And without anything in the way of labor-negotiation experience prior to this battle, it's fair to wonder if he's the right man to be heading up the most significant collective bargaining agreement talks in sports history.

Again, back to Planet Earth a moment. This is not a pro-ownership piece. I am giving no one a free pass here. But I fear that Smith is making this battle too much about himself and taking away from the real problem — the lack of consistent, concrete labor talks as the legal process goes on.

Smith has every opportunity to turn from heretic to hero. He has a chance to stand up to the big, bad NFL, fight a good, clean fight for what's right and get a deal done. He would be hailed properly for his efforts and, most importantly, we'd have football back. I sincerely hope he turns this around, proves me idiotic and gets it done.

But something in me fears the direction this is heading. Something is a bit rotten and scary here. Something tells me that Smith fears he has come too far now to back down. Sometimes a step backward means a few forward in time. Giving a little can get a lot. Football, even at this highest of perches, has the chance to grow even more. But I fear that Smith is too hung up on flashing his rapier in court and in front of the media and trying to make history and headlines, instead of making a deal.

I hope I am wrong. If so I'll be the first to admit it. But until now, consider me suspicious and concerned. I just fear we'll all be robbed of the game we love.

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