Amid the dawn of the new league year this week, the pace of change has been fast and furious in the NFL, with players on the move as blockbuster trades and headline free-agent signings dominate the league’s landscape. But in the grand scheme of things, the most significant transaction by far could wind up taking place Sunday evening in the distant locale of Hawaii, when the NFL Players Association conducts its annual meeting and votes whether to continue the six-year tenure of executive director DeMaurice Smith or start fresh with one of the whopping eight challengers vying to replace him.
A field that large has made handicapping the race somewhat difficult, but the consensus among players union sources I spoke with this week is that Smith’s job status could well be on shaky ground, although he still must be considered the favorite to prevail in a process where a simple majority of the 32 team player rep votes are needed to win election.
Clearly though the level of dissatisfaction with Smith’s job performance is substantial, given eight men have stepped forward to run against him, an unprecedented number and eight more than he had deal with in the union’s last executive director election in 2012, when he was unopposed. One candidate, the former player Sean Gilbert, has built his anti-Smith platform on the bashing of the 2011 CBA struck by the union’s leadership, and vowed to present to the player reps a road map to overturn the 10-year agreement (which runs through the 2020 season) via pursuing a collusion case against the league’s team owners.
Said Smith recently of the upcoming election, per the Associated Press: “It’s a union where everybody is heard but majority rules. And as we will surely see in a few days in Hawaii, there’s more than enough people who I’m sure have some sort of disagreement with me or the course of how the union has gone or the vision for the union in the future.’’
More than enough, indeed. Among his eight would-be successors, Smith’s greatest vulnerability as a non-ex-player is thought to be if the balloting boils down to a head-to-head battle with any of the three former NFL veterans running against him: Gilbert, Jason Belser, and Robert Griffith.
Gilbert, a former Pro Bowl star and the uncle of new/old Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, played 11 seasons as a defensive lineman in the NFL starting in 1992, and has gone public for months with a strident challenge to Smith for the union’s top leadership post. Belser is also an 11-year NFL veteran, having played defensive back with the Colts and Chiefs between 1992-2002. He now serves as the NFLPA’s senior director of player affairs and development, and thus his candidacy is thought to be the one of which Smith and his staff are most wary. Griffith played safety for the Vikings, Browns and Cardinals from 1994-2006, going from an undrafted collegiate free agent to a two-time All-Pro selection, and also serving seven years on the NFLPA’s executive committee after a long stint as one of Minnesota’s player reps. His significant union history and leadership experience is seen as his greatest strength.
While Smith was a Washington-based trial attorney by trade with no previous professional ties to football prior to being elected by the union in March 2009 and several other candidates in this year’s field are either lawyers or agents, Smith’s support could be affected if a strong feeling in the room builds around the idea that the executive director position should be held by a former player. The position was, of course, held by an ex-player for many years under the largely successful stewardship of former union chief and Hall of Fame player Gene Upshaw, whose death in August 2008 paved the way for Smith’s election the following spring.
Said one source: “Smith is vulnerable to an ex-player who wants to be executive director. The case that could be trouble for him is that having a player in charge is the way to go. They could say, ‘We can always hire a lawyer.’ But a player should be the face and the leader of the players union.’’
Griffith’s union experience came entirely in the Upshaw era, and he feels strongly that the NFLPA needs to return to the thinking and tone that prevailed when the union and the league worked more as partners than adversaries, and that having an ex-player in the executive director post is the first step toward that goal.
“I believe the executive director should have a vested interest in the union,’’ Griffith told SI.com this week by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “When we had Gene Upshaw in that job -- and I’ll call them the glory years -- we knew he was making decisions that not only affected us as current players, but also affected him as well as an ex-player. Attorneys are hired and fired every day. There is no vested interest for those men.
“As a guy now who’s been out of the game for a while, I understand the decisions that were made by Gene. They affected me, they affected my benefits, they affected my health. I understand the full circle of coming in as an undrafted guy, and then playing in this league and fighting for the rights for players. And not just a few players, but all players. I still have a vested interest in what goes on in the union, and I believe that’s what Gene brought to us, and I want to restore that.”
Also in need of restoration, Griffith said, is the union’s relationship with the league office. Though Upshaw and then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue both received criticism for being too chummy with the opposing side late in their tenures, labor peace prevailed for much of their eras. Now the pendulum swing toward needless confrontation between the union and the league has swung way too far in the other direction, Griffith said.
“Why me? Why me is because I understand Gene and Paul had a great relationship and it was really about mutual respect, and being able to sit down and hash out all the real issues of the day,” Griffith said. “More importantly I understand nothing gets done by sensationalizing and handling issues in the media, and threatening lawsuits. With all due respect to De Smith, it seems to me like the NFLPA has turned into a law firm, and not a brand managing firm, which we are. This is a business, but players are their own companies and their own business in itself. I just hate to see what’s going on with my union. With Gene we knew he was going to negotiate in good fair honest negotiations and receive mutual respect from the other side. And that’s not there now. It’s about us growing the game, not fighting in the press. It’s not about fighting the league and drawing up lawyer’s fees and billable hours. It’s about playing our part, and owning our half of the deals we already have in place.
“I want to have a great relationship with [NFL commissioner] Roger [Goodell]. I want to have the NFL understand we do have this thing set up pretty good. Revenues are there. The Super Bowl is the most viewed show in the history of earth. But the players are the real guys we should be making sure we’re taking care of, because this is a for-players, by-players union and league. And it sounds cliché I know, but nobody’s coming to see Tom Benson or Jerry Jones run down the field.’’
Gilbert claims the CBA that Smith negotiated with NFL ownership in 2011 will cost the players $10 billion by the time the 10-year deal has been completed. And while the players were seen as having taken a thrashing at the hands of the owners in the first three years of the deal, losing ground in terms of revenues, the salary cap has risen significantly the past two years and other benefits like shorter off-season programs, less intensive practices during the season and more player-friendly innovations were won in that oft-derided 2011 negotiation.
By one source’s estimation, only five or six of the current 32 player reps had a significant role in the 2011 CBA talks, either as a player rep, or as a member of the union’s executive committee or various other committees. That could play in Smith’s favor on Sunday, in that he might not have to defend the deal quite so vigorously to a group of players who have seen the salary cap rise by about $20 million in recent years, and who have better working conditions and schedule because of the latest CBA. While the players did give some money back to the owners, they gave it back after Upshaw and Co. struck the most favorable labor deal in the game’s history in March 2006 (which the owners soon thereafter opted out of), and in the post-recession era, the players’ financial outlook has improved.
“I know players are upset with the CBA, but there are things that can’t be changed about it,’’ said one union source. “There are six years left, so you can’t change that. I think it’d be too difficult. But on the other side of things, there have been a couple recent wins for the union and [Smith]. Getting Goodell’s Ray Rice and [Adrian] Peterson rulings overturned has come off looking as if the commissioner’s disciplinary authority has been impacted, and that could work in Smith’s favor.’’
Gilbert’s strongest card to play is if he can make a plausible argument in favor of pursuing the collusion case against the league, as the means to overturning the current CBA long before it’s set to expire.
“The biggest issue will be the mechanics of how the deal could possibly end early,’’ a source said. “Because it’s easy to say we’re going to blow this thing up, and it’s another thing entirely to explain how to do that. I know it’d have to be dramatic. The players would essentially have to unite and say, ‘Well, we’re not going to work,’ and then they’d have to stick with it. And I know guys aren’t likely to do something like that.’’
Griffith agrees and says any focus on the four-year-old CBA is wasted effort at this point.
“Blowing up this CBA is the most absurd thing I’ve heard,’’ he said. “Nothing against Sean, but we’re talking about a deal we signed. We have to live with where it’s at and the confines of it, and we still have a [minimum cash] spending clause [in the salary cap] that’s got to go up to 90-plus percent. By the end of the deal, it could end up being a really good return. But it’s a deal that’s not going to be blown up or anything. We have no opt out. We have to play our part and own our half of the negotiation that’s already done. We also have to grow the parts of the game that we don’t have to share with the owners. There are other opportunities for us to grow our money outside of what we have to split in the CBA.’’
Each of the nine candidates will get 40 minutes to make a presentation to the full body of player reps on Saturday—Jim Acho, Rob London, Arthur McAffe, John Stufflebeam and Andrew Smith are the other five challengers to Smith—then there will be time for smaller groups to conduct Q&A sessions with them. On Sunday closing arguments will be heard, and then a vote is expected in the late afternoon or early evening, Hawaii time. If no candidate receives 17 votes (which is a majority) on the first ballot, the lowest vote getter is thrown out, and another vote is taken. That format could lead to some interesting scenarios, as candidates who are challenging Smith might coalesce together and combine their support in an effort to effect change at the top in the union. Then again, Smith is thought to have a solid block of perhaps as many as 12-15 votes, and could be pushed over the top if one of the other candidates—perhaps fellow union executive Belser?—slides his support Smith’s way.
“The dynamics of the room with the voting being conducted like that is significant in this,’’ a union source said. “I know how votes go and people can start to get momentum in these types of settings, and then anything can happen. If nobody receives a majority of votes on the first ballot, some of the doubts start to creep in from some people in the room, after hearing everyone talk. And all the platforms of the challengers are going to be based on the weaknesses of what De did and what the CBA looks like right now. They’re going to hear a lot of different approaches on how they would change things and what they would change. You just never know what’s going to happen after that first ballot.’’
After a week of significant change in the NFL, is the most important move of all still to come?