We’ve gone 24 years without losing a single NFL football game due to a work stoppage. But now, we’ve encountered labor hell. With the NFL and its players refusing to budge, there’s a tremendous chance the 2011 football season will be jeopardized by a lockout that has tied the arms of the football world for four weeks and isn’t loosening its grip.
Why, after years of labor peace, has doomsday arrived? Because while the terms haven’t changed, the names and faces have.
When the National Football League Players’ Association fleeced the league in the renewal of the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2006, the union was led by Gene Upshaw, a former player who understood the game from every dimension. Upshaw had a remarkable relationship with the owners and then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
That deal was struck in March 2006. Five months later, Tagliabue retired. Two years later, Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer.
Current commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith were left with the scraps.
What makes this situation particularly tough is that it’s hard to tell a self-proclaimed winner that he’s supposed to lose. See, everyone knew that the players got a sweet deal in ’06. The current NFLPA president has even admitted this. Naturally, you’d expect the pendulum to swing back toward the middle in this negotiation process.
Before taking over as NFLPA executive director two years ago, Smith was a criminal defense and tort liability lawyer by trade. His world was conviction vs. acquittal, guilty vs. not guilty. You either won or you lost. And that’s part of the reason why Smith has been so stubborn in negotiating with the league. This isn’t black and white. Collective bargaining between employers and employees is filled with shades of gray.
Smith started the job at the worst possible time. He finds himself in a situation in which he’s supposed to give something back — especially considering the lopsided 2006 agreement — but he’s unwilling to do so. That would look like a loss. And in Smith’s world, that’s unacceptable.
The players appear to love Smith, and that makes sense. He’s come in guns-a-blazing. He’s the Bizarro Upshaw. He doesn’t get along with Goodell and he isn’t exactly known for showing respect to the owners. He’s like the misbehaved kid who won’t take his hat off at the dinner table.
Smith and his colleagues go out of their way to be hip and cool — anything anti-white collar. They want to appeal to the players (who are young) and the fans of the future (who are, naturally, young). They use phrases like “we are at war” to describe a battle that won’t take lives. They’re hardcore.
It’s no surprise that a headstrong, in-your-face cowboy like Smith appeals to the group he represents. But that doesn’t mean he’s good for the game.
Because sometimes it’s hard to get a read on Smith. He’ll tell you that he’s not in this for headlines like these, to make his career, but what else would you expect from the guy? In reality, an outsider might see him as an archetypical union leader looking to advance himself by being “that guy who wouldn’t back down in the face of big, bad corporate America.”
And it’s when you get a whiff of the standard De Smith melodrama when you wonder if his intentions are explicit.
“I do think there are times in your life when you’re called to do something,” Smith said in January. “It’s not something that you seek. It just seems to be the convergence of both a desire and an opportunity, and people around you who believe in the same mission.”
Quotes like that, alongside the now-infamous declaration of war, make you wonder if Smith is simply laying the tracks for a made-for-TV movie.
Upshaw was quiet. He didn’t share every morsel of information with his players, instead relaying messages, proposals and pertinent info when necessary. His job was to comb through the fine print. That ability is particularly important at times like these. Smith doesn’t have a filter like Upshaw did. In an admirable attempt to be as transparent as possible, he involves the players in every matter that comes across his desk.
Smith uses this as a selling point. And yet I’d argue that there’s never been a time in NFL history in which we’ve had this many players popping off with misinformation. In Smith’s defense, there was no Twitter five years ago, but in 2006, Upshaw and his closest allies did the dirty work. The majority of players stayed out of it. The result: very few cracks in the union armor and one of the best deals in the history of collective bargaining in professional sports.
As much as the players probably appreciate being in the loop, is it really necessary? Don’t they elect presidents and team reps for a reason? Spreading information through what ends up being a grapevine can do more harm than good. The NFLPA would be better off with 30 people knowing the entire story than they are with 2,000 knowing part of it.
What this boils down to: the players love Smith, but the players don’t necessarily know what’s right for them. The fans might like Smith, but they should realize that his presence may in fact be the primary reason why the league has halted operations.
Smith is a wild card still attempting to make a name. Upshaw’s name was already made.
Was “Uptown Gene” a “lapdog,” as Bryant Gumbel so roughly put it on national television? Maybe. Was he too close to the commissioner and the league office? Probably. Did he keep professional football on your television set while establishing a Cowboys Stadium-sized advantage for his union before passing? Yup.
Is Smith an attack dog? Indeed. Is that friggin’ cool? Of course. Do the players love it? Naturally. Is it significantly more dangerous for everyone else in the area? Absolutely.