Daily Herald
New NFL player's union boss visit Halas Hall
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 5/14/2009 2:46 PM

DeMaurice Smith, the new executive director of the NFL Players Association, stopped by Halas Hall Thursday on his trek through all of the league's cities to discuss the owners' decision to opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement and the ramifications that decision could have on the players and the league.

Before speaking with Bears players, Smith sat down with a small group of media representatives to discuss what has already become a critical period in labor negotiations between players and owners. If a new CBA isn't agreed upon by the end of the 2009 season, 2010 would automatically became an uncapped season, with no maximum - or minimum - payroll per team.

Q. Tell us the purpose of your visit, and what you hope to accomplish.

A. I'm meeting with all of the teams, and I can boil it down real quickly and really easy. I'm here to meet with the teams, and if I can meet with any of the management and the owners that's great as well, and same thing with the coaches, but really I'm designing most of my trips to meet with the media. Just kidding.

Q. Did you meet with the McCaskeys?

A. I did, we had a great chat. I met with Michael.

Q. Are you going to the owners' meetings (in Florida) next week?

A. Wow. You guys are good. Yeah, I'll be there, we're trying to work on the scheduling because my primary mission is to get to the teams, and I want to make sure that I get that done and then, if we can schedule a mutually convenient time, we'll do that.

Q. Do you hope to start negotiations any time soon? What is next week going to be about?

A. I'm meeting with four teams next week, Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville and Carolina. So the first thing on my agenda is to meet with the teams. The meeting with the owners will be a nice opportunity for us to get together and just say, "Hello."

Q. What are the questions that most players are asking you at this point?

A. They want to know why the owners opted out (of the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement). That's probably if not the No. 1 question, it's certainly somewhere among the top three.

Q. What do you tell them in response?

A. I don't know (why the owners opted out).

Q. Have the owners told you what they want? They were the ones who were unhappy with the contract.

A. I have the luxury of being the new guy. No one's told me why they opted out. I read everything that you guys read and have read everything that was said at the time, but other than (from) what I've read, there have been no specifics.

I don't know if there have been any specifics about why they opted out, what factors led them to opt out, what financial conditions necessitated the decision, what analysis they employed in order to reach a conclusion that the deal wasn't good for them. No information about whether there were specific profit-loss issues per team and nothing, at least that I've seen, that provided specific information about any forecast, business forecast, about what items were important for them to make the decision that they made.

Q. You've said that you're confident about getting a new deal done. How confident are you about that and why?

A. What I said there was that I'm confident because our players want to play the game, our coaches want to coach the game, and it's my hope and belief that the owners want to play the game. And we certainly have fans who love our games, so I'm always confident where A, there's a dialogue; and B, there's a love of our game. So that gives me a great deal of confidence.

Do we have some things to address that the players know are fundamental to the negotiations? Absolutely.

Q. Have the players voiced any concerns about a work stoppage?

A. The one thing we do talk about is soft language because I don't know what a work stoppage is. I know what a lockout is, but I don't know what a work stoppage is. A lockout, and I've talked to the guys about this, a lockout is where guys who want to work can't work. I don't know what a work stoppage is.

Q. Have the players talked to you about a lockout?

A. The players can't talk themselves out.

Q. The point is ...

A. You see I'm precise.

Q. You're very good.

A. I'm not good, come on. No, just to boil it down, look, what I've talked (about) and what the players are interested in - they read what you read, and they want to know whether the owners are moving to a position where they want to lock the players out. Are the players concerned about that? Absolutely.

Q. Do you believe the owners want to lock the players out?

A. In the same way that no owner has turned over audited financial statements to me or provided me with a list of business reasons why they opted out, I haven't had any specific conversation with an owner where they told me what their plans are for the future.

What I do is what you guys do. I look at the information that we have about the contracts in some cities where they've ask coaches to sign contracts that contemplate the potential of a lockout. I've seen comments in the press about the possibility of a lockout. I know that some of the people that they (the owners) have talked to, hired and retained have been involved in lockouts in other sports.

And lastly, I haven't seen the Direc-TV contract, but I did read some of the reports that you guys had about that contract that included language about guarantees to teams in the event of a lockout.

So, I'm not a mind reader and I haven't had a specific conversation with anybody, but the players have read and seen and heard all of those things as well.

Q. (Former NFLPA executive director) Gene (Upshaw) used to say that if you go to an uncapped year, the players association will never go back to a salary cap. Is that your position also?

A. Yes.

Q. Will looking at the ramifications of an uncapped year be difficult?

A. Right now I'm looking at the ramifications of possibly being in a situation where our guys want to work and provide for their families and they can't. I tend to focus on the things that are immediate, and thinking about the long-term ramifications of an uncapped year, we can talk about that for a while.

I have to tell you, the players are thinking about the uncapped year in terms of: "What does it mean for health care for my spouse?" The players were the ones that raised the issue to me of, "Look, in an uncapped year, what happens to the owners' contributions or obligations for contributions as it relates to retirement, pension and disability for retired players?"

I talked to the players about the fact that there's 100,000 people that work in our stadiums. What happens to them if there's a lockout? You're talking about people, for those folks, it's their third or their fourth job. In many cases, it's things like school, it's things like Christmas presents. It's not a huge amount of money, but my guess is that in some jurisdictions, those eight game checks for some people are going to be light and heat.

So, yeah, as players, as businessmen, as well as the coaching community, we spend time talking about what could happen in the future. But most of the conversation right now is focused on what specifically happens to us in an uncapped year and why are we in a situation where the owners opted out of the current deal.

Q. Fans might believe some teams will throw gobs of money at players in an uncapped year, but they don't realize that, in an uncapped year, there is also no minimum that teams have to spend, as there is now.

A. Everybody kind of focuses on the ceiling; nobody focuses on the floor.

Q. So, is an uncapped year a good or a bad thing for the players in the short term?

A. I think you just answered the question. The reality of it is in the uncapped year that we would move forward with right now, there would be effects on the ceiling but also effects on the floor.

It's hard to project what an uncapped situation would look like going forward because obviously you could contract on all sorts of other modifications in the uncapped year. I don't spend a whole heck of a lot of time thinking about what that uncapped year will look like five years from now.

I think our fans understand that the National Football League is not only the greatest game on the planet, but I think a lot of them understand that it's one of the most phenomenal business models in American history. I think our fans understand - if they don't know many of them have heard - when you generate $8 billion in revenue in one year, and when I come and get a chance to talk to folks in the media and mention the fact that the National Football League is a nonprofit organization, I think our fans live in a world where they understand the effects of an economic downturn. They get it.

I hope that they also understand that this is a business model that has grown exponentially for 30 years, 40 years, and I think for the same reason that our players are trying to figure out, "Wow, how can you have monumental growth, how can you have such large revenue generation and how come we wake up one morning and that's a deal that's not good for one side?"

You've got a lot of guys who are practicing and trying to stay alive on a football field each and every day, but when they get around and shut the door, they ask that question: "How can a deal be that bad."

Q. Is it pretty cut and dried what you said about there being no salary cap after 2010 if that is an uncapped year?

A. No, what I said was, he asked me about what Gene (Upshaw) said and whether that is my position. It is. I can't sit down here right now and start to contemplate what the uncapped year, if we're there, what that year would look like in 2015 because, I don't know.

We're living in a world right now where if someone came up to you three years ago and said I got a job offer from Bear-Stearns and Lehman, is that a good deal? All of you would have said that's fantastic. Well, guess what? They're gone.

So, in the same way that not many of us could project a few months ago, let alone a few years ago, about the investment bank community, I can't sit here and tell you what an uncapped year is going to look like five, six, seven years from now.

Q. Do you have a good feel for Commissioner Roger Goodell and how would you describe yourself as a negotiator?

A. I've got a great relationship with Roger. We have an open line of communication. I can't imagine our relationship being any better or getting started in a better way than we have now. We talk probably two to three times a week. I'll in all likelihood see him next week.

Again, going back to the question about whether I am confident, the first piece of that level of confidence is I think we do have a good way of talking with each other. We do have, I think, a healthy respect for talking and diving into the issues, and we're already there, so that's a good thing.

About my negotiating style, I'm a data guy. I've never been a part of any transaction, case, discussion or fight where everybody didn't know and understand and appreciate exactly what you're fighting, negotiating and talking about.

So with that as sort of my bedrock principle, where I start is where the players start. What are we negotiating about? What's the issue? If the deal was not good for you, explain to us why.

If the owners had to opt out because of financial impacts or financial concerns about something, it seems to me the best way to negotiate, and frankly I don't know anyone's negotiating style, that doesn't start with: "What are we negotiating about? What are the facts? What are the issues? What is the proof?"

And so for us, like any other negotiating point over a business matter, the players are interested in, "OK, what is the profit margin for the teams? How much money did they make last year? What is the average rate of return per team, per game? How much does the average team make per playoff game? What is the five-year rate of return for the cost of investment of teams given the money and operating income that is generated? What is the operating income per team for the last 10 years?"

So my guess is, none of the seven of you knows the answers to those questions. That might be OK for you, but I represent a group of players who are now being asked to negotiate, being forced to negotiate over the issue. It would be great if you all knew the answers to those questions, but I think it's necessary for us to know the answers to those questions. Make sense?

For my negotiating style, that is where it starts. The Green Bay Packers, you can say what you want, but that is a team that turns over audited financial statements. As far as I know, the sky hasn't parted. There hasn't been hail. Nothing has been cratered. If it's good enough for a team like the Green Bay Packers to turn over audited financial statements, why isn't it good for the rest of the teams?

Q. How big is the issue of off-season contact (in practices) with some of the teams you've visited, and have you had any complaints about that here in Chicago?

A. The answer is, "No," in respect to Chicago.

Generally, there is a huge amount of concern on behalf of the players. Huge. These are men, and they are all businessmen, but their value commodity is their legs, their knees, their hips, their arms, their shoulders, their head, their eyes. They're always interested in a world where they understand the ramifications if they violate the rules on the field or off the field. They get it. They understand.

What they don't understand is how year after year after year they can have or be in a scenario where there are violations of the contact rule by teams.

Look, at the end of the day, aren't we all just interested in basic fairness? So, the extent to which they understand the ramifications for violating the rules for their conduct, there is a huge concern about the violations of contact rules in OTA's and minicamps.

Q. What percentage of the teams have voiced concerns or complaints about off-season contact?

A. This is the ninth team I have visited. But on that issue, I reach back for guys like (NFLPA committee members and former players) Jason Belser, Tom Carter, Scottie Graham, Clark Gaines, all of those guys are our strong assets in the PA. They've been tasked a lot over the last few weeks to give me data, to provide me information. So when they go back and take a look at that information, it's not only the teams that I have visited so far that have given me an indication of the level of concern, it's also been the historical data they have.