I had the chance to sit with the new executive director of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, for three hours in Washington last week. I liked him. He's personable, he listens, he makes good arguments ... and, more importantly, he's a huge football fan. He loves the game, and it's going to be tough for him to tear himself away from his beloved Redskins and become a fan of all 32 teams. But to me that's a good thing. He's excited about meeting the men he's watched on TV over the years and was tickled that Peyton Manning was trying to reach out to him last week to congratulate him on the new job.
I came away from the Smith meeting, at a restaurant in northwest Washington, with some strong thoughts.
He's a sponge. He doesn't know all the issues yet (it would be pretty hard to know them all, seeing he was picked for the job one month ago Wednesday), but he sounds like a knowledge-gatherer and consensus-builder. The day I met with him, the NFLPA had a big Retirement Board meeting, honing in on the continuing problems of retired pro players, and Smith stopped in to listen for a while but said very little. That's because he realizes he knows very little right now.
He's not used to the very public world he's about to enter. He's been a trial lawyer and an assistant U.S. prosecutor, and he's had some big cases, but he's never had his public pronouncements probed and deconstructed the way they're about to be now. I think he's a pleasant man, and a tough man with a thick skin. But it's easy to say, as he does, that the public eye is not going to fry him. He may be right. But he wouldn't be human -- and I've seen this done to people who fight the NFL -- if getting ripped in the press and public didn't affect him.
He's going to fight for the retired players and the $8-an-hour stadium parking attendants almost as hard as he's going to fight for the players. That you can take to the bank.
I told Smith the current players have always given lip service to the retired-player issues, but never stepped up and demanded the union take better care of these poor, depressed souls. I told him about former Minnesota center Matt Birk's effort last year to get every player to contribute a portion of their Week 16 game checks to some of the indigent retirees, and Birk, who contributed $50,000 himself, generated less than $400,000 in donations. Pathetic, I thought. So, I asked Smith, are the current players on board with his drive to improve the lot of those who paved their way?
"If they had a problem with me on that issue,'' Smith said, grabbing the chair he was sitting in, "then I'm not sitting in this chair right now. When I was talking with the player reps [at the site of the election in Hawaii], there wasn't a player there who didn't think more should be done for the retired players.''
Scattershooting some issues with Smith:
• On not knowing the vast majority of players he's been chosen to lead: "People have asked me, 'How are you going to relate to those guys in the locker room?' By talking to them. That's what I do. I communicate. I listen. I think my job is to do the will of the players. It has to do with a plan, not a person.''
• On the owners' desire to have more manageable rookie salaries, particularly at the top of the first round: "The cold, hard reality is that's not our job. Why would any owner come to me, or [union president] Kevin Mawae or [Executive Board member] Drew Brees and say, 'You're got to do something about rookie salaries.' I haven't seen a rookie check that isn't signed by an owner. We don't write the checks, and we don't sign them.''
• On the league's expansion of the schedule from 16 to either 17 or 18 regular-season games: "There's been a great deal of talk by players on this issue. The players know the health and safety costs of playing this game. The fact is, it does look like a war zone in some of those [locker] rooms late in the season. But it's hard for me to talk about it because I haven't seen a plan from the league on this. I'd like to know exactly what the statistical probability is for increased injuries by players. I'd like to know the econometrics of the issue, and I'd like to make sure the cost and compensation of the extra games would be fair to the players.''
• On the provocative nature of his statement after being elected that every day he prays for peace but prepares for war in the looming negotiations with the NFL for a new bargaining agreement: "For the owners or people in the league who might have taken that as provocative, I can tell you that there are a lot of players who take the owners' possibility of a lockout in two years as the most provocative statement that could be made at the start of the negotiations.''
I asked Smith if a job action could be averted. "I'm extremely confident,'' he said, though I got the strong feeling it was just something a labor leader has to say before the start of what are sure to be contentious negotiations on the future of this $8-billion-a-year business. "I have to believe the owners want to play the games without interruption. I know our players do.''
Now onto your e-mail:
• HARRY KALAS ROCKED. From Anthony Palma of Philly: "Peter, your thoughts on the passing of the greatest voice in my lifetime, Harry Kalas, and his connection to the NFL through NFL Films?''
Classy, personable guy who never thought the game or the story was about him. The game was the game, and he was an onlooker, a narrator, there to support it. Sometimes announcers try to become bigger than they should be, and bigger than fans really want them to be. That wasn't Kalas. I thought it was great (and I don't mean great that he died, but great where it happened) that he took his last breath doing what he loved to do -- broadcast a baseball game. "It's like [former commissioner] Bert Bell dropping dead at a football game,'' NFL Films czar Steve Sabol told me Monday night.
Funny how he was revered so much on ESPN last night by the baseball analysts ... and the fans in most of the country know him more as a football voice for HBO's and Showtime's "Inside the NFL'' show, and for voiceover voice for Campbell's Soup and Coors Light and whatever else he peddled. "I loved his voice,'' said Sabol. "His pipes resonated like Yo Yo Ma's cello.''
• FANS JUST DON'T LIKE TO HEAR PLAYERS TALK ABOUT MONEY. From David Charney of Mercer Island, Wash.: "Responding to Mike Vrabel's comments about the playoffs, exactly how much money does he think his last contract would have been worth if the Patriots had not been in the playoffs and won the recent Super Bowls? While this might not be the case for some of the second and third line players, I think this holds for players like Tom Brady as well and is a GREAT motivation to want to go deep into the playoffs. In a more general sense, can we PLEASE stop hearing about people making way too much money from a game whining about having to work more or not being able to leech more money from somewhere? This goes for the owners and the players. Boo-freakin'-hoo.''
David, this is why the players are going to have a hard time winning this CBA battle with the owners. Fans like you (and there are tens of thousands out there, maybe hundreds of thousands, who feel the same way) don't want to hear about players feeling ripped off for having to play playoff games for $33,000.
• AND MORE OF THE SAME FROM GAINESVILLE. From Nick of Gainesville, Fla.: "I really like your column and I normally agree with most of your points. However, I cannot see how you can carry the torch for NFL players who think they are underpaid in the playoffs. How can anyone possibly complain for being paid $33,529 (on average) per week? The average American household makes roughly $50,000 per year. That means in two playoff weeks, an NFL player makes more than the average American family. And that is on top of the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars they are paid during the regular season. I have a degree from a well-regarded law school, and I still make less per year than a player does in the playoffs.''
Nick, if you got an average of $8,000 per case, and then it came time to argue the biggest case you'd ever had before the Florida Supreme Court, and you got $500 for it, would you feel that was fair? Everything is relative.
• HMMMMMMMM. From Nick Nodolf of Menominee Falls, Wisc.: "Peter, I enjoy your weekly MMQB -- keep up the good work. Regarding your "hidden seasons" remarks, I have to disagree with your analysis. In short, I believe your analysis of player pay is skewed because it looks at salaries as payment only for regular season games. While these salaries are paid on an interval that is consistent with regular season pay, these salaries are more appropriately categorized as payment by the team to the player so that the team makes the playoffs. In other words, the team pays each player with the playoffs in mind and with hopes of a Super Bowl win. As such, each player's worth over the 19 or 20 games is taken into account when the salary is negotiated. This may be forgotten or lost on the players themselves, but the pay in the playoffs is merely "bonus" money paid for success in each round. It's a thank you, if you will, to the players for actually accomplishing what they are paid to do. Segmenting the pay based on how salaries are paid belies the underlying and foremost reason for paying the salary.''
Interesting thoughts, Nick. But I would just say this: A great player making $5 million a year in Buffalo and a great player making $5 million in New England is different. The New England player might play 19 games and make $5.1 million; the Buffalo player might play 16 and make $5 million. It's a question of salary fairness, seems to me.
• VERY GOOD POINT. From Joey of Kerman, Calif.: "Peter, you said that the Lions are worried that they 'may not have a chance to draft a quarterback as promising [as Matthew Stafford] in the next few years.' However, next year we should see Tim Tebow, Chase McDaniels, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford, all of whom were superstars in college, enter the draft. Why is Detroit so worried about getting a quarterback THIS year? It seems to me that if Stafford or Mark Sanchez don't seem like the perfect QB prospect, then a team should pick a player of more value at another position and wait a year for what could be a fantastic year for quarterbacks in next year's draft.''
Great argument, even though there's much skepticism that Tebow is a top-of-the-first-round quarterback talent. Next year likely will be better for quarterbacks. But if the Lions love Stafford, they're not going to pass on him. What guarantee do they have that they'd be picking in the top five or six, or whatever number it would have to be to get one of the best two or three quarterbacks next year? We can sit here and say the Lions are destined to draft in the top three every year for the next X number of years, but as Miami showed last year, there's no guaranteeing anything these days in the NFL.
• I OBVIOUSLY DON'T KNOW THE AMERICAN SPORTS FAN. From Steve of Saint Peter, Minn.: "Regarding the timing of this year's draft: I remember you including a statement last year about seeing a NASCAR race in an airport while the Yankees and Red Sox were playing, and remarking on how you were surprised by how little people outside of the northeast cared about said rivalry. As a person who lived in Washington state during last year's draft, I can assure you that a 1:05 p.m. start on the West Coast is more inviting to West Coast viewers than a 9 a.m. start. Why should the NFL schedule one of its premier events around one/two games in another sport, especially when most people couldn't care less about one (if not both) of them? Remember, the country does not schedule events around Yankees-Red Sox games, nor does everyone live in the Eastern Time Zone.''
Good points, sort of. I would say this: Whenever I talk to football fans in the West, I find they love NFL games starting at 10 a.m. That's all I'm talking about here -- starting the draft at a time suitable for both East and West coast fans. I'm not saying the NFL should be cowed by a couple of baseball games, but it's common sense: They knew the FOX game of the week starts at 4 p.m. on April 25. Why start your premier event of the offseason at the same time, as it turns out, as rivalry games involving two of the three biggest markets in the United States? It's not good business.
• THE GIANTS WILL GET A RECEIVER. I JUST DON'T KNOW WHICH ONE. From Nick Campbell of New Canaan, Conn.: "With the Giants cutting Plaxico Burress loose, do you see them possibly picking up a wide receiver via trade? Ideally, I wouldn't mind seeing a Braylon Edwards or Anquan Boldin catching passes from Eli Manning. Or do they try and pick up a WR in the draft? I am bearish on all the WRs coming out making an impact right away, with the exception of Michael Crabtree, who the Giants won't get. (Cool running into you outside Sibling Rivalry on Friday night. Try 10 Tables out in Jamaica Plains or its new location in Cambridge. Best food I have had in Boston. Also check out Upper Crust Pizza a little bit further down on Tremont Street.)''
Nick, thanks for the restaurant reviews. Good meeting you, too. My guess is the Giants will get either Braylon Edwards or draft a receiver in the first two rounds. It's a good year for wideouts, but the problem with getting a rookie is that rookie receivers rarely make an impact in year one, and the Giants need a receiver to be impactful this year, not in 2011.
• YOU MIGHT BE OVERTHINKING THIS ONE, MALCOLM. From Malcolm Charles of Southport, N.C.: "If the NFL wants to get rid of the appearance of referees in the tank for the Steelers, then it might be wise for Mike Pereira to not acquire a football autographed by anyone, much less Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney.''
Point noted, but not agreed with.