Fire, Brimstone and Football Hell

DeMaurice Smith (Rob Carr/Getty)

As the NFL and the group formerly known as the union continue to point fingers, it appears one man was focused on celebrity status more than negotiating. DeMaurice Smith's predecessor knew how to cut a deal, something Smith could have learned from.

Paraphrasing the old joke about how one might characterize a thousand attorneys buried at the bottom of the ocean floor: What do you call a fast-talkin' lawyer with a decertified union, no pulpit from which to preach to a congregation and technically no association to executively direct?

A good start.

At the risk of alienating the rank-and-file — and less important, since I wasn't on the Twitter or fax accounts of NFLPA assistant executive director/minister of propaganda George Attallah — the Friday afternoon decertification maneuver by the players' association was the move DeMaurice Smith has had in mind for a long time. And now the fait has met the accompli, and it's time for the NFLPA to turn to someone who knows how to cut a deal.

We're not smart enough, or well enough versed in labor law, to have prepared any suggestions. But there has got to be, somewhere, anywhere, a viable alternative to Smith, essentially Elmer Gantry in a business suit and goofy hat. Smith exponentially raised the ante with his incendiary rhetoric, demonizing the league and its owners and their financial statements, declaring the negotiations a war.

Well, on Friday afternoon, he may have won a battle. But in egotistically rejecting a treaty that would have ended the war for another half-dozen years or so, and made his constituents a lot of money, he may have led his mesmerized charges to the brink of football hell.

Can he dig it?

Over the last several months, Smith has talked a lot of fire and brimstone. The players ought to heed the first of those two and jettison Smith. The suspicion here is that Smith never really wanted an agreement, just the celebrity that accompanied the fight. And now, instead of celebrity, he's got notoriety. Smith is certainly smart enough to recognize the difference in connotation between the two.

Make no mistake, this columnist had a lot of battles with the late Gene Upshaw, and was one of the people who felt he and his cronies were too cozy with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. But give credit to Upshaw for this much: He knew when a deal was a good one, when to bury the rhetoric, and sign on the dotted line, and permit the money to flow.

A guy who never met a sound bite, who apparently believed every question required a seven-minute answer, Smith seemingly reveled over the sound of his own voice. Negotiation, by definition, is give-and-take. It's hard to offer a rebuttal, or counter, we're guessing NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash learned, when you can barely get in a word edgewise.

Part of Upshaw's appeal to union members was that he played the game. Smith, on the other hand, played games. Upshaw didn't possess the curriculum vitae Smith owns, for sure, but, by comparison, he was a latter-day Solomon. Sometimes, deeds are more powerful and lasting than fancy words and bluster.

Just ask Rex Ryan.

If all this sounds contrarian, a plebian hack siding with billionaires, 16 of whom showed up on the Forbes Magazine list of the wealthiest 400 Americans this week, well, we apologize. If readers want, we'll go to our bureau drawer and unearth all the union cards and dues books we've held the past 40-some years. But having been raised in a blue-collar, union environment doesn't mean that you swallow all of the talk that goes along with that status.

The players, who hopefully heeded the NFLPA's advice that they squirrel away 25 percent of their income in each of 2009 and 2010, swallowed Smith's spiel, and look where it's gotten them. Without a union, Smith shouldn't be able to collect a salary now, right? Good, because he doesn't deserve any reimbursement for the mess he helped to create.

No doubt, there is plenty of blame to spread around, and Smith shouldn't escape his share of the finger-pointing.

The post-decertification presentation by Pash, the owners' hired gun, but a guy who has been through this before and has been trustworthy, might have been a little bit one-sided. The blame isn't, however, and Smith should own up to that. When he portrays the owners as bad guys, Smith might want to steal a glance in the mirror. What we had here, among other things, was a failure to communicate. For a man who makes a living with multisyllabic utterances, that must be a comedown, but also a failure.

Time and again, as he delineated point by point the league's final offer on Friday afternoon, Pash concluded, "Apparently, it wasn't enough."

Hey, Jeff, as far as DeMaurice Smith was concerned, it was never going to be.


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