- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

DeMaurice Smith’s football career ended in high school. Gene Upshaw’s ended with his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That distance from the NFL’s retired players is apparently helping Smith, Upshaw’s successor as executive director of the NFL Players Association, heal the long-standing rift his predecessor couldn’t repair.

On Friday, Smith and Herb Adderley announced a $26.5 million settlement of a lawsuit the Hall of Fame cornerback filed in 2007 on behalf of more than 2,000 former players alleging the NFLPA had not paid them their proper share of marketing contracts with such companies as Electronic Arts Inc., manufacturer of the “Madden NFL” video games.

“We represent the players of the National Football League, those who used to play, those who play,” said Smith, elected in March as the replacement for Upshaw, who died of cancer last August. “From this day forward, one of the things that we will be working on is to remove the word ‘retired’ from any group of people who played this game. We will be one team. We will have one locker room. We will speak with one voice.”

Adderley confirmed those sentiments with the support of former players Brig Owens, Mark Washington, Brian Mitchell, Clark Gaines, Andre Collins, Tom Carter and Jason Belser as well as Washington Redskins receiver James Thrash.

“I’m just grateful and happy that this thing is finally ending,” Adderley said. “My hope is to bring everyone together, one voice, one team, one union. Let this be the beginning of change. This is better than running a touchdown back in the Super Bowl.”

In November, a federal jury ordered the NFLPA to pay Adderley’s group $28.1 million, a ruling the union appealed before Smith’s election.

“This is just one small step today,” Smith said. “We [resolved] a matter that had divided us. I know that we have some healing to do. I know that there are some things that need to be done better. If we can make sure that the voices who are interested in those issues like pensions, retirement, health care come together to address those issues, it makes it much more likely we’ll get the answer right.”

Owens, who became an attorney and agent after his 12-year career with the Redskins ended in 1977, credited Smith for coming into the job with “a fresh vision and willingness to reach out” in order to resolve these kinds of long-standing issues. So did NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen, Upshaw’s longtime associate.

But Smith declined to take credit for being a new voice with a new message.

“We might do a little bit better job of reaching out and connecting, finding out what people are thinking,” Smith said. “You can look around this room and see a number of players who paid a price. Brig Owens tells stories about being punished and chastened for speaking out on behalf of this union. For my inspiration, all I have to do is look backwards at the people who played this game and look forward to the people who play this game now.”

Thrash, the Redskins’ player representative, agreed Smith already has made a difference by opening a dialogue not burdened by the old disputes and bad feelings that might have accompanied the former players’ talks with Upshaw.

“As players, we’ve always wanted to bridge that gap,” Thrash said. “This is going to make us a stronger union.”

That increased strength can only help Smith and the union in the upcoming negotiations with commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL owners over the collective bargaining agreement.

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