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Union's stance on longer schedule will reveal its true motivation


DeMaurice Smith is about to go from a name you have heard to a face you can't avoid. Smith is the head of the NFL Players' Association, and in a few days, he and Commissioner Roger Goodell will be on the clock.

As you probably know, the NFL is headed for LABOR ARMAGEDDON!!! and is in real danger of canceling the entire 2011 season. Actually, I don't think that will happen. Labor negotiations -- not just in sports -- are almost always filled with dire warnings, posturing and bluffs. This is why I'm glad I didn't marry a labor lawyer. It sounds stressful.

So Smith is becoming more prominent by the day. And right now, I just want to hear him honestly answer a single, simple question:

DeMaurice, would you personally like to see an 18-game season?

I don't know what he would say. I imagine we would get some version of "I represent the players, and the players have indicated they don't want an 18-game season." And that is fine.

But it doesn't really answer the question. And the real answer -- Smith's answer -- will say so much about Smith, the NFLPA, the labor negotiation and even the future of the league.

"I can't sell it to the players," NFLPA president Kevin Mawae said in a recent radio appearance, according to the association's official web site. "DeMaurice Smith can't sell it to the players. The players don't want it, and quite frankly, the fans don't want it."

Is the problem that they can't sell it? Does that mean they would like to sell it?

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Mawae recently told ESPN that the NFLPA won't take an 18-game schedule off the table because it wants to negotiate "in good faith." But unions reject ideas all the time. So do management negotiators.

The fact is the NFLPA can gain quite a bit from an 18-game schedule. It would mean increased revenue for the league, which means higher salaries (or at least smaller payroll cuts) for the players. For Smith, the difference between an 18-game and 16-game schedule could -- potentially -- be the difference between looking like he won his first labor negotiation and looking like he lost.

And that is why I want to hear Smith say no. I want to hear him say there will be no 18-game schedule, period.

If he says that, we'll know Smith is more concerned with protecting his players' bodies than their bank accounts.

The modern day sports union executive has a simple mandate: Build the largest pile of money. Hey, I love a big pile of money as much as the next guy. I keep several big piles of money in a neat row in my imagination. But in recent years, as pro sports have become more and more lucrative, we have seen union leaders focus too much on money at the expense (no pun intended) of other issues.

Longtime baseball union leader Donald Fehr should have sought testing for performance-enhancing drugs to protect his players who didn't want to take them. Smith's predecessor, Gene Upshaw, was heavily criticized for ignoring the plight of former players who destroyed their bodies playing football.

Unions do not exist solely to build big piles of money for their members. Many unions gained power with a different mandate: to improve working conditions. And that is a lot more important for the NFLPA right now.

The minimum salary in the NFL has been more than $300,000 for two years now -- even for rookies. The vast majority of players make more than that. I hate to say "That's enough money for them" because a) that's enough money for just about anyone, and b) the players are entitled to their share of the pie, no matter how big the pie gets. As long as the NFL is a billion-dollar business, players should get rich off it. I would always rather give my money to a player than an owner.

But clearly, the players are not in desperate need of a raise. They can easily afford a pay cut. (Collectively, I mean. Obviously some guys will spend their way to bankruptcy no matter how much they make.) And by telling their union they don't want an 18-game schedule, the players have basically said their welfare is more important than improving their bank balance.

If I were an NFL player (ha!), I would want my union to make player safety even more important than player pay. The players have said they don't want an 18-game schedule. We'll find out in the next few months if the union leadership is satisfied with that answer.