DeMaurice Smith Needs to Go
A third day of court-mandated negotiations between NFL owners and players concluded today, and source reports of the action are as varied and disparate as they have been since the beginning of the lockout 63 days ago. Some, like retired Viking Carl Eller, echoed statements made by ESPN analyst Sal Paolantonio last night which described the negotiations as extremely successful. Said Eller: “I feel we really got some movement between last night and today.”
Others, however, are less optimistic, describing the talks as little more than a cold rehash of the same arguments and stumbling blocks that have stalemated progress since late March.
But more telling than any analysis was the final result of the negotiations, which concluded with both sides once again walking away from the table and postponing further discussion until June 7th, four days after the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals will begin hearing arguments in the owners’ appeal case. The fact that both the league and its players are choosing to wait three weeks for the next court-mandated mediation session – rather than continuing unmediated talks on their own – is a pretty clear sign that they are nowhere near a breakthrough. It’s also pretty clear proof that DeMaurice Smith is a crazy person.
The appeal case, which will officially begin on June 3rd, is going to be heard by the same three-member panel that just yesterday sided with the owners by legally enforcing the lockout. It’s obvious – to everyone except De Smith, apparently – that the court is not going to change its opinion in three weeks’ time, and the verdict is once again going to fall in the owners’ favor. Smith – a former trial lawyer – is almost belligerently pursuing his doomed case in court, ignoring all the evidence and sometimes even the players he represents in a desperate attempt to save face.
From the very beginning, Smith has viewed negotiations – coming to a compromise with the league – as defeat. Two months ago, when all the lawsuits were being filed and the promise of legal victory was still very real, Smith’s stance seemed like a good idea to players. They were pissed that the league simply opted out of a signed contract, then threatened them with a lockout if they refused to renegotiate and give up millions of dollars in income. At the time, they didn’t want to settle. They wanted revenge. So they found a fast-talking Washington lawyer, a true Player in both government and private-sector litigation, who promised them the moon: first, he would de-certify the players’ union and sue the NFL for a violation of anti-trust laws, which would end the lockout immediately. Then he would sue the owners for stealing $4 billion in TV revenue from the players and tie up their “war chest” in court-ordered escrow, which would leave them just as desperate to resume operations as the players. The owners would crack, the players would get an even better CBA than the one signed in 2006, and everyone would be back on the field by June.
But, unfortunately for the players, Smith underestimated the 8th Circuit Panel. He didn’t realize that a successful anti-trust suit again the NFL in federal court might establish a precedent that could severely complicate corporate business law in the U.S. for years to come. He didn’t foresee two Bush-appointed Republican judges sitting in on the trial, and choosing the verdict which would make as few waves as possible for big-business in America. He just didn’t see losing as an option, so he had no back-up plan in the event it all blew up in his face. Which is just what happened yesterday.
Now Smith is in the awkward situation of having to admit he failed. That the hundreds of thousands of dollars the players spent on his massive legal team might as well have been flushed down the toilet. At the moment, he’s still holding strong in public. Yesterday he called out the league for “successfully suing to keep its sport from being played” and showed no signs of giving up any time soon. It was a show, of course, a contrived effort to keep the players united behind him and to ward off any criticism of his tactics or methods. Sooner or later, though, the questions are going to arise. As the weeks trail on, players are really going to feel the financial effects of the lockout. Some established veterans may have enough in the bank to continue living normally, but hundreds of lesser-known and younger players are going to seriously miss those offseason checks, and eventually all of De Smith’s high-minded goals and revenge games are going to pale in comparison to mortgage payments, medical bills, and daily living expenses.
If negotiations continue to falter, if the lawsuits continue to yield few tangible victories for the players, Smith will be facing mutiny sometime in the coming weeks. Without the promise of a nearby payday, frustrated players are eventually going to start speaking out. Third-year linebackers will take to Twitter to denounce Smith and all his failed promises. Third-string running backs will call Adam Schein on Sirius NFL Radio to complain about being “misled” and “angry”. Smith, eventually, will either be forced to resign or cave to owner demands and reunite the players under the only banner he’ll have left: let’s get back to work. Either choice, in my opinion, would be fantastic.