NFL's Longest Work Stoppage Ends

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith speaks with reporters outside the NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011, after the NFL Players Association executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously Monday to approve the terms of a deal with owners to the end the 4½-month lockout. i i

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith speaks with reporters outside the NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011, after the NFL Players Association executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously Monday to approve the terms of a deal with owners to the end the 4½-month lockout. Cliff Owen/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Cliff Owen/AP
NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith speaks with reporters outside the NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011, after the NFL Players Association executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously Monday to approve the terms of a deal with owners to the end the 4½-month lockout.

NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith speaks with reporters outside the NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington, Monday, July 25, 2011, after the NFL Players Association executive board and 32 team reps voted unanimously Monday to approve the terms of a deal with owners to the end the 4½-month lockout.

Cliff Owen/AP

After more than four months, NFL players and owners have reached an agreement to end the lockout. NFL Players Association Head DeMaurice Smith tells host Michel Martin what he's most grateful about under the new deal and what was the toughest to give up. They also discuss what players were doing during the lockout, and what fans can expect this fall.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, you're out of work, you're looking for a job. You find one you think you're qualified to do and then your potential boss says no you're not because you're unemployed. One advocacy group says it's found evidence that some employers are refusing even to consider unemployed people for available jobs. We'll hear from them and a lawyer who represents employers in a few minutes. That's our weekly money coach conversation.

But first, after four and a half months, the commissioner of the NFL and the head of the Players Association are finally talking football, not lockout. On Tuesday, representatives of the players voted to accept a 10-year agreement to end the lockout that started in March. It was the longest work stoppage in NFL history.

DeMaurice Smith is the executive director of the NFL Players Association. And he's with us now to talk about the new deal. Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Smith, and congratulations.

DEMAURICE SMITH: Thank you very much and we're thrilled for our fans and thrilled for our players.

MARTIN: Well, obviously in most compromises, you know, each side has to give something. So what are you most gratified to get in the new agreement and what are you sorriest to give up?

SMITH: Any negotiation is at the end a good compromise between the parties. So the players in the National Football League, we were able to achieve certainty when it comes to the amount of revenue that will be used to compensate players. We made historic changes in the work rules to keep the game safer going forward.

And finally, we made a substantial stride together with the National Football League in taking care of former players and supplementing their pensions with a new creation of a funded benefit of $610 million over the next 10 years. So I'm very proud of our players, certainly happy with the deal between the owners and the players. There's another step to go, but we're moving in a positive direction.

MARTIN: We can talk about that in a minute, but what are you sorriest to give up?

SMITH: Well, any negotiation you argue over things that generally come down to economic terms. I think if it's a good deal, both sides walk away a little bit unhappy with not getting everything they want. Certainly the players were interested more compensation. The trade for that, of course, was certainty for the revenue share for the first time in history. And certainly for the first time in history contracts which are guaranteed against injury. That part was a significant win by the players and a way to make sure that our players are taken care of going forward.

MARTIN: The Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, one of the 10 players, said that this will probably turn out to be one of the best deals in the history of sports. And that's a far cry from what he and some of the other players were saying before the talks broke off in March, when he called the owners' last offer probably the worst deal in sports history. So what turned thing around?

SMITH: Well, two things, I think. The players certainly stood together when many people thought that the players would become fractious. Two, I think the management and NFL owners, once they got the opportunity to sit face to face with players and really dive into the issues, there was certainly a will to get football going again. So I think the combination of those two things resulted in a fair and balanced deal between the both of us.

MARTIN: What about the question of the retired players and how they are to be treated? I mean, one of the things that you've talked about before is that this is a sport with a 100 percent injury rate.

SMITH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And this is one of the issues that has surfaced in recent years. It was almost never talked about in the past, which is the health effects that many players are experiencing long after their playing years have ended. What does this deal do for them?

SMITH: Well, this deal is a continuation, I believe, of the focus of the players since March of '09 to step up to the plate and to take these issues directly and aggressively. And Michel, you remember when you and I were talking about the manner in which concussions were treated in the National Football League and how the players took a very aggressive stance on changing the way concussions are managed and dealt with.

In less than basically 15 months you saw almost a sea change in the way concussions were being managed and treated in the National Football League and really throughout football. So the next step became, what can we do with a lasting agreement that for the first time in history has teams contributing to the pensions of former players?

MARTIN: We're speaking with the head of the NFL Players Union, DeMaurice Smith. We're talking about the recently concluded agreement that will allow the pro football season to proceed, you know, on schedule. Training camp, as I understand it, starts today. What have most of the players been doing during the lockout?

SMITH: Well, you saw many of them continue to work out on their own. These young men are not only tremendous athletes, they recognize the necessity of maintaining their physical condition. I think one byproduct of the lockout has been an extended period of time for players to have off for rest and recovery. One of the things that we achieved in this new agreement is that players will have a longer amount of time off. I tried to capture it, at least conceptually, as something called spring semester.

MARTIN: I was going to say, how does that work since the number of regular season games remains the same, right? So how does that work?

SMITH: They remain the same, but veterans will now not report to camp until at the earliest the third week in April. Many of our players were coming back to at least some sort of mini-camp or organized team activity as early as the beginning of March.

So it was important not only from a health and safety standpoint to push to a system where there was more time for rest and recovery. But many of our young men leave college, enter into the business of football not having completed their college degree. We have now provided an opportunity and time for many of our men to go back to school and capture a semester where they can finish their degree, because I want every one of them preparing for the day that football will end.

MARTIN: How do you think the fans should view all this? On the one hand it's kind of a it's a wash - nothing was lost, the regular season I assume is going to start on schedule, right?

SMITH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I assume you think the young men will be ready - the young men and the not so young men will be ready. But you know, the country, the rest of the country is really suffering right now.

SMITH: Yes.

MARTIN: And this is the country's most popular sport. And I think it's hard for some people to understand how it is that you guys couldn't come to agreement over $9 billion in revenue over four and a half months. How should fans think about this period?

SMITH: From the fan standpoint I think that they should be proud of the players in the way that they stood together. Because it was important not only to take care of rookie contracts, it was important for the players to take care of former players. For a guy who grew up in this area, I'm proud that Redskins like Vonnie Holliday made a decision to take care of the pensions for guys like Sam Huff.

MARTIN: Now, remember, as part of this process, the union decertified itself.

SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: Are there issues still to be negotiated?

SMITH: Absolutely. First step is we will be meeting with all of our teams over the next four days, five days, to see if they want to reconstitute as a union. If that vote is yes, we then engage with the National Football League to discuss only those issues that we could do as a union representing the players. So issues like pension benefits, others benefits, discipline, grievances, all of those things - other health and safety issues - those are issues that need to be joined and need to be resolved before August 4th, when we would vote to ratify the entire CBA.

MARTIN: And finally, do you have any advice for the president and the Congress, who seem to be having some trouble coming to agreement over some financial issues, which also have rather large consequence for the country? You have any advice for them?

SMITH: Yeah, Michel, you do a great job of absolutely putting me on the spot. You know, look, I think it's important for the country that everybody remain reasonable and try to rectify the issues between them. And that's what we did as players. I know that's what Roger and the owners did. We all spent a tremendous amount of time together over the last few months trying to resolve forceful positions between us, let's say. And we did. And I think that's a great thing for football, certainly a great thing for the country.

MARTIN: Well, now that you have some free time, perhaps you'll volunteer your services?

SMITH: Absolutely not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: DeMaurice Smith is the head of the NFL Players Union. He was nice enough to talk to us from his offices in Washington, D.C. Mr. Smith, thank you so much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you, Michel. Thank you.

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