In a year in which sweeping and historic change has come to Washington, D.C. on a national scale, the NFL Players Association followed suit with the trend Sunday night, electing D.C.-based attorney DeMaurice F. Smith, a relative unknown quantity in NFL circles, as the union's new executive director, SI.com has learned.
After a long and often contentious search for a successor to former NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, who died of pancreatic cancer last August, Smith was elected by the union on the first ballot Sunday night at the Players Association's annual meeting in Maui.
Sources told SI.com that Trace Armstrong, one of the two presumed favorites for the executive director job, along with former union president Troy Vincent, was informed of Smith's election about 11:15 p.m. ET Sunday.
Smith is a partner at the law firm Patton Boggs in Washington and has no significant NFL ties.
According to union sources, Smith seized control of the favorite's role for on Saturday in Maui, when he wowed the union's 32-man board of player representatives with an hourlong presentation, heavy on detail, regarding his plan to lead the union in its upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the NFL.
Smith, whose law firm is extremely plugged in to the political landscape of Washington, D.C., and has ties to the Obama administration, told the players that he would be able to prompt Congressional pressure on the NFL to bargain in good faith. Smith mentioned to the players that he felt some of that bargaining pressure could be created through Congress challenging the league's tax exempt status, as well as its long-held anti-trust exemption.
Smith won easily, but sources said it was not just based on his ability to position himself as a compromise candidate who bore none of the baggage that co-favorites Armstrong and Vincent brought to the race for the top job in the most powerful union in professional sports. Vincent and Armstrong, both former union presidents and ex-NFL players, had strong factions of support, but could not move enough voters from each other's camp to win election.
"[Smith] gave a plan, a detailed account of how to win [against the NFL], in the CBA negotiations,'' a union source said. "It was a plan that reached the players, because it was concise and detailed and had a strategy to it. It was an outline to follow. In short, he made them believe he is a winner.''
Though the controversies surrounding Vincent's candidacy dominated the headlines created by the NFLPA's search for a new executive director, Smith's vision for the union's future is what carried the day, sources said.
"He was just the best candidate,'' a union source said. "It had nothing to do with the Vincent-Armstrong factions in the end. Once the players saw him and heard him, it wasn't about the issues that have been out there. It was about his talents and his vision. He was that impressive. He talked with the players and to the players, not at the players.''
Throughout the day on Sunday, sources indicated that the election was headed Smith's way, and Armstrong, the second-strongest candidate, was said to be trailing Smith's support by a substantial margin.
For a time on Sunday there was some buzz that Armstrong and Smith would team up in some capacity, first with Armstrong in the lead role and Smith as the union's general counsel. Later, as Smith's position grew in strength, there were some union board members believed to be in favor of having Smith name Armstrong as assistant executive director. It's not know whether or not Armstrong would have accepted such a position, but he was asked to consider it by at least one board member, a union source said.
"I sure hope that's the case,'' a union source said. "It has been a long two days out here, but as Gene [Upshaw] always said, in the end the men made the right decision. I think that's what the board did today. The men have spoken, and they've spoken loudly, clearly and decisively. And now we can move forward as a union.''