- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

At first glance, DeMaurice Smith seems an unlikely choice to succeed Gene Upshaw as the executive director of the NFL Players Association.

Upshaw was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, an intimidating man who stood an intimidating 6-foot-5 in his prime. But intimidation isn’t Smith’s style. A former champion sprinter and a successful prosecutor and trial lawyer, Smith put those skills to work when he convinced the NFLPA’s 11-player executive committee to choose him last month to replace the late Upshaw.

Armed with a ready smile, measured tones and a less than threatening appearance, the 45-year-old litigation partner at the D.C. law firm of Patton Boggs bested a field that included former NFLPA presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong and sports agent David Cornwell in last month’s election to succeed Upshaw, whose 28-year reign ended with his unexpected death from cancer in August.

Raised in Glenarden by parents who were government employees, Smith takes over the NFLPA as it heads into critical collective bargaining negotiations with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners amid the nation’s worst economic climate since the sport’s earliest days.

“I enjoyed the process because I found it very similar to what I do every day,” Smith said last week in an interview with The Washington Times at the Guards restaurant in Georgetown. “The kind of people who retain me, retain my firm, have very complex problems with potentially very complex answers. We pull together the best economists, the best labor lawyers, the best corporate strategists, talk to the right people about what’s the right way to analyze the problem. I pulled together those people, and we decided to write a business plan for the NFLPA.”

Last May, the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement extension negotiated just two years earlier by Upshaw and Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue. That set the stage for the possible repeal of the 15-year-old salary cap in 2010 and a potential lockout of the players in 2011.

Smith sees his new job as providing “vision and leadership to… every player in the league to maximize their interests, to understand their problems, to protect their safety and welfare, to provide for a better life for them after football than the life they had before, to engage the retired players in a way to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can for them and to work with the owners to make sure that we live up to our obligation to our fans that they get to enjoy the game of football.”

That talk makes him sound like a politician, but the nattily dressed Smith is more than a glib speaker.

“It’s not my job to make sure everybody likes ‘D’,” Smith said, using his nickname. “That’s not just how I’m wired. They elected me to do a job, and I’ll tell you what, I’ll do it. I have one way of talking to people. I’m extremely blunt, sometimes a little too blunt. The NFL is an $8 billion enterprise. Over the last 10 years, the [average] franchise value has grown by over 400 percent. And it operates with antitrust exemptions. It’s the only game in town.”

It’s not Smith’s only game. He still intends to coach the teams of his children, 13-year-old Elizabeth and 9-year-old Alex, and wants to spend as much time as possible with his family. He calls his wife, Karen, a CPA and breast cancer survivor, “the toughest person I know.” And he attends the same church as his parents and sister.

But when he leaves Patton Boggs for good on Friday, Smith’s focus will be on ensuring that the players keep getting paid handsomely to play a sport he didn’t play beyond his backup running back role at Riverdale Baptist High School.

Smith said “it’s humbling” to succeed Upshaw, whose battered Oakland Raiders helmet he keeps on display in the NFLPA conference room. But Smith disputed the notion that an agreement between the owners and players is less likely since both he and “the incredibly talented” Goodell will be out to prove their bona fides during their first negotiations in command.

“I don’t think that either of us are going to be pushed in any direction because of perception,” Smith said. “Both of us understand our respective obligations, and we have a very fine sense of our constituents, but the reality is that we are business partners. This is not an antagonistic relationship. Does it have to be, at times, adversarial or contentious over some issues? Yes. But there’s a relationship that has been extremely successful and beneficial for a number of years.”

Upshaw helped preserve labor peace for more than two decades after work stoppages in 1982 and 1987 shortened those seasons, but he was blasted in recent years by his fellow retired players for not sharing enough of the 21st century riches with those who had set the table for that feast back in the 20th century.

“We have a moral obligation to the retired players,” Smith said. “We have a fiduciary obligation to the retired players. That obligation has to be both in words and deeds. If you fail in either one, you fail.

Using his “we can do better” mantra and pointing to the mangled hands of his buddy, former Washington Redskins defensive end Charles Mann, who was siting next to him, Smith segued into a discussion about why extending the 16-game season to 17 or 18 games, as the NFL seems to want, isn’t as simple as swapping preseason dates for regular-season contests.

But then Smith, who carries a PDA and a mobile phone, reads two or three books at once and believes life is a balancing act in which he usually comes up short, doesn’t do simple.

“I’m never happy with a solution to a problem,” Smith said. “I’m happy with a successful solution to a problem. Anybody can solve problem A. But if that solution creates another problem, than it wasn’t a successful solution. I spend a lot of time thinking about problems because it’s only when you fully understand the intricacies of a problem that you can find a successful, comprehensive solution.”

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