WAILEA, Hawaii -- As he settled into his seat last year for the most important Players Association meeting in three decades, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck felt the type of butterflies normally associated with a big game. Longtime executive director Gene Upshaw had died unexpectedly from cancer seven months earlier, and now the 32 player representatives were gathered in a conference room at the Fairmont Kea Lani resort to elect the successor who would lead the union into a potentially nasty labor battle with the owners.
Hasselbeck listened carefully to the four candidates before voting with the majority for DeMaurice Smith, a respected Washington-based trial attorney whose only ties to the game were the Redskins season tickets his family has owned since the mid-1970s. Smith's selection represented a sea change within the union because it typically had been headed by a former player, the notable exception being Ed Garvey's 12-year run that ended in 1983.
When the votes were tallied, Hasselbeck exhaled a sigh of relief, but the butterflies remained in his stomach.
"De was clearly the right guy. Clearly," Hasselbeck says. "But some of us felt a lot of pressure when the vote was over -- like, did we do the right thing? You want to get it right because it's such an important decision. I'd say a lot of us feel good now that we can go back to the locker room and work out and train and focus on football without worry because we have someone who is taking care of things. We got the right guy."
The importance of the selection looms even larger now that the NFL is 12 months from what could be its first work stoppage in 24 years. The players association is so convinced the owners will close their doors when the collective bargaining agreement expires in March 2011 that its Web site features a "LOCKOUT WATCH" in the masthead.
The owners approved the current collective bargaining agreement in 2006 but opted out of it two years later because, in their opinion, it forces them to assume too much of the financial risk to grow the game via new stadiums, league-owned media outlets and international games. The current agreement calls for as much as 59 percent of total league revenues to go to player salaries. The owners' initial proposal for a new CBA sought to have the figure slashed to 41 percent.
That sound you hear in the background is laughter from the union offices.
The players are not going to take that big a rollback, and the league knows it. That's one reason Smith has yet to make a serious counterproposal. In his mind, there's no reason for the union to negotiate against itself.
"If there is a lockout I will leave it to the NFL's management to explain to America why they took away America's game at a time when some teams make $90 million a year in profit, according to Forbes magazine, and some teams make $20 million in profit on the low end, according to Forbes," Smith says. "I'll leave it to the NFL to explain the justification for taking away America's game when the average NFL owner makes $31 million a year in profit -- in the worst recession of our lives. We have been talking about this for a year and not one person from the National Football League has ever said that that $31 million profit figure is wrong. Not one."
Smith was elected in part because he was an outsider with fresh ideas. After listening to league representatives repeatedly talk about the increasing financial risks owners are assuming, he suggested the sides create a true partnership in which there were equal risk. The way to do that? Give the players ownership stakes in the teams.
His plan: For each percentage point the owners received in rollbacks, the players would receive an equity share in the franchises. When an owner sold the team, the players' share of the profit would go into the players' pension fund.
"What better way to take care of the risk that the owners have than to become true partners?" Smith says. "We've already been told by the Management Council that the owners aren't interested in that. My response is, then where is your risk?
"If you're a waiter and you're on your way into the restaurant to work, how many take out $10 and stuff it into a box because it's going to keep the lights on in the restaurant? Nobody does that. So you have NFL owners saying that we need players to rent their own locker rooms. That's in the proposal. And pay for their own travel costs. That's in the proposal. The 18 percent rollback contains a list of costs that they want the players to bear. Included in that cost is, we need you to give us money back for the operation of the practice facility."
Smith wants the owners to open their books so the union can see where the money is being spent. Are owners paying themselves or their relatives exorbitant salaries? Are they using the team to cover losses or expenses in other businesses? Are they charging themselves for luxury suites or travel unrelated to the team?
The league views such questions as diversionary tactics, contending that the union knows to the penny how much revenue each club receives and what portion goes to player salaries. One league source said the teams don't open their books to each other, so there's no way they're going to open them for the union. Smith remains undeterred.
During the players association's annual meeting in Maui last week, he spoke freely and touched on topics that ranged from improved benefits for active and retired players, his willingness to take his fight to Capitol Hill, and his desire to secure more medical data from the league regarding player treatment. He is as passionate about these things as he is about the players taking ownership of their futures, which is why his face will be less visible and his voice less audible in the coming months. His goal is to empower the players through education, that way they can make informed decisions about the upcoming labor battle.
"I don't want anything I say to come off as negative toward Gene, but things are different now," says Ravens player rep Domonique Foxworth. "I think the players are more engaged than they ever have been. The union had a very distinct way of operating before. A lot of people from Gene all the way down had gotten comfortable with the way things were. There was a [centralization of power and information]. It's a little more inclusive now -- a lot more inclusive. I think De has taken our organization into kind of a new age in terms of communication and organization."
That's not to say Upshaw's way was bad. The players and league enjoyed more than two decades of labor peace and record earnings during his tenure. But Upshaw liked to govern as if the union were a monarchy. He typically had a small group of foot soldiers who would carry his message to the masses. If that created an atmosphere of ignorance among the larger group, so be it. The end result was what mattered to him.
Smith's slogan at the annual meeting was "One Team, One Locker Room, One Voice." For the first time in the organization's history, he brought in former players for a joint session with the active players, the message being they're in the battle together. The players association made further history by adding two retired players to its executive committee, on a motion made by Saints QB Drew Brees. The retirees won't have voting privileges -- only the 32 members on the Board of Player Representatives have voting powers -- but the fact the former players will be in the negotiating room, at the table, is a major step toward healing painful wounds that divided many retired players and the union.
Smith believes there is power through education. For instance, Broncos rep Kyle Orton initially was frustrated and angry with the union that he and 211 other players were prevented from becoming unrestricted free agents this year because of changes that kicked in for the final year of the current CBA. Instead of needing four accrued seasons for unrestricted free agency, players would need six. But his attitude changed when he learned that Smith proposed keeping the old rules in place for 2010 but was rebuffed by the owners.
Carolina wideout Steve Smith and Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson previously had little interest in labor issues. Woodson even admits to shirking his duties as an alternate rep with the Raiders early in his career. No more.
"This is my chance to be a part of something that's going to make a difference," says the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. "Because of my time in the NFL and what I am to the game, I think it was important for other guys to see me getting involved and trying to learn the issues, learn why we're fighting. We're not just fighting for frivolous things. This is a fight for things that are much more serious than people give us credit for. People just think it's about these high-profile athletes making all this money against billionaire owners. It goes much deeper than that.
"This fight is about your livelihood. We play this game and, make no mistake, there's a lot of money flying around. But it's much deeper than that. What we do out there every week, we put our mental and physical [well being] behind the 8-ball. Once you leave this game your body is going to start to deteriorate very fast. To have your health coverage expire five years after you leave this game -- I mean, don't get sick, don't fall down. That's real. That's one of the issues that we're fighting for. If I get educated, then I can educate the other guys who I know will listen to what I'm saying. That's half the battle."
The annual meeting was in Hawaii, but it may as well have been in Green Bay during the winter (FYI: the union voted last year to hold future meetings on the mainland). There was little time for the players to enjoy the sun or surf. They were in meetings from 7 a.m. until 3-5 p.m. At one point Hasselbeck emerged from a dim room and held out his pasty arms and said: "The beach? Yeah, look at my tan."
Not that he was complaining. The goal was to educate himself, and the veteran signal-caller likened the sessions to drinking information from a fire hose. Smith, the Panthers' standout wideout, said he came hoping to get a cup of knowledge. He left with gallons.
"We're not over here doing a war chant," Hasselbeck said at the time. "We're trying to learn what the owners really want. ... We're also working on several other major issues. One would be healthcare benefits, which is a major, major issue for pretty much everybody in this country. Right now, if you're vested -- (you need three accrued seasons and three games), you get healthcare for five years after you're done playing. The reality is that it's a really violent game and that hasn't worked. Five years later some of these guys are 29, 30 and they have no healthcare and can't get healthcare because of the injuries they sustained covering a wedge, because they put it all on the line.
"The other issue that's really, really tricky is concussions, head trauma, brain trauma. We are so in the Stone Age in terms of how we deal with concussions. I'm sure people are going to talk about and fight about money, but it's not even in the top five for some of us. It's healthcare, benefits for guys that need it, that are basically disabled and can't get healthcare because of pre-existing conditions; it's this concussion stuff."
Contrary to some characterizations, player reps in Maui spoke unsolicited about the importance of looking after retired players. Several were stung during the week when Goodell, in a letter to Congresswoman Linda Sanchez that was posted on the league's labor Web site, accused the union of being willing to turn its back on former players. The letter stated in part: "I have said publicly that there will be no (new) agreement without improvements for retired players. On the contrary, when the union last week informed us that it was willing to make a new deal under certain conditions, there was no mention by them of increased benefits for retirees. The union leadership was willing to make a deal without any improvements for retired players."
Colts center Jeff Saturday and retired Steelers tight end Mark Bruener attended a recent negotiating session in which Goodell was present. They contend no such offer was made. In fact, Saturday says the presented a proposal in which the players would contribute $100 million toward retirees and requested that the owners contribute another $1 million each.
"That would be where we could start this line and move forward," Saturday said. "I want former players to know how much we fight for them each time we go into that negotiation. Believe me, I'm on the latter part of my career. I'm going to be sitting in that chair in a few years. I understand how important these issues are. I fight for them tooth and nail each time I'm in that room."
The players say Smith is doing the same, which is one reason Hasselbeck and others feel so comfortable with their vote last year. In their eyes they got the right guy.