NFL Union Sticks With a Losing Game Plan
The NFL Players Association re-elected executive director DeMaurice Smith to a third term early Monday morning. The question is: why?
Smith was challenged by eight other candidates. The crowded field indicated many players' displeasure with Smith's negotiation of the latest collective bargaining agreement in 2011, which was a huge win for the owners. Most insiders agree that Smith's job wasn't actually in any real danger, and that the number of candidates and their questionable qualifications actually worked in his favor.
But it's clear that support for his candidacy was far from universal. The NFLPA wants to present a united front, but don't be fooled -- division abounds. Smith was elected on the first ballot, receiving at least 17 of the 32 votes. (USA Today's Tom Pelissero reports that the union re-voted in order to present a unanimous ballot "to show unity.") The biggest challenge came from in-house: Jason Belser, the union's senior director of player services and development, who must now go back to working under Smith. Those meetings won't be awkward at all.
Contrast that to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who enjoys unwavering support from his base even when he's dead wrong. That's one explanation for the continued success owners have in wresting financial concessions away from the players.
Many players think Smith is a weak leader who cowered to the owners in "the worst CBA in professional sports history." (Others think that Smith's contentious relationship with Goodell ends up working against the players.) Last month, challenger Sean Gilbert asserted that the 2011 deal will ultimately cost the players a total of $10 billion. VICE Sports' Patrick Hruby offers a detailed take-down of the disastrous deal, which shrunk the players' share of net revenues, squeezed the "middle class" to benefit superstars and severely limited rookie contracts.
So how did Smith successfully convince enough players that he's been good for all them? Salaries are on the rise, and recent high-profile deals likely boosted his candidacy. But higher total salaries are more a function of increasing league revenues than Smith's negotiating prowess; as Gilbert pointed out, things aren't so rosy in relative terms. And as I've noted before, deals like the one Darrelle Revis just signed are certainly not the norm.
The NFLPA also likes to tout its achievements in health and safety as evidence that the CBA wasn't completely terrible. True, players now enjoy greater medical coverage and on-field protections than before. Then again, it's easy to point out gains when you're starting at zero. Some of these protections, such as the sideline concussion tests, give little more than lip service to the idea of safety. Meanwhile, players still don't enjoy long-term heath coverage. One of Smith's challengers, Jim Acho, ran on the platform of securing medical benefits for players until age 65.
It seems a major factor in Smith's support was his resolve in the recent disciplinary appeals of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, who successfully fought the league's haphazard punishment practices. Putting aside the horrible nature of their crimes and the unsavory implication that Smith's greatest achievement might be defending abusers, Rice and Peterson were completely justified from a labor standpoint in arguing that their suspensions were the result of retroactively applying a new penalty system. Those were pretty much open-and-shut cases, tee'd up for Smith. And as I wrote at the time: "The union is thus likely seeking to change the bigger picture beyond simply addressing recent cases of individual players -- a picture created in part by a weak union handing even more power to league during the 2011 labor negotiations."
We'll see if Smith can galvanize his union and dispel his image as a weak leader over the three-year term. But even so, players should be very wary of sticking with him for the next round of CBA negotiations in 2021.
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