D.C. Lawyer To Head NFL Players Association

The NFL Players Association has picked its new leader. DeMaurice Smith, a lawyer from Washington, D.C., takes over for the late Gene Upshaw. Smith already has big problems to tackle.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We're going to take a breather from March Madness today and talk football. The season may be over, but the National Football League is a year-round news story.

This week, the union representing NFL players elected a new leader. His name is DeMaurice Smith. He's a 45-year-old Washington attorney, and he's got some big issues on his plate.

And joining us on a Wednesday instead of his usual Friday is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hey, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, DeMaurice Smith takes over for the late Gene Upshaw, who presided over an era of peace between the players and the owners, but that peace seems to be threatened right now.

FATSIS: Yeah. It was before Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer last August, and it's largely because of how the current collective bargaining agreement with the players has played out.

The NFL's team owners agreed a few years ago to give the players about 60 percent of most league revenue. The owners now maintain that their margins have been cut way too thin. They opted out of the labor deal last year.

The union, of course, doesn't buy the complaints, and the two sides now need to reach an agreement before the start of the 2010 season or the league's salary cap would be lifted for that season. And then you'd very likely be looking at a work stoppage in 2011, which hasn't happened in the NFL since 1987.

NORRIS: Interesting pick because Smith steps into this job as an outsider to football. Can you tell us just a little bit about him?

FATSIS: Well, he spent 10 years in the U.S. Attorney's Office, and he worked for the current attorney general, Eric Holder, in the Clinton administration.

As a partner at the firm Patton Boggs, he's represented automakers, pharmaceutical companies and other white-collar criminal and civil cases. His background in football? He's a fan, a Redskins fan. He sits on the board of a charitable group founded by a couple of former Redskins. But that lack of football experience, I think, was part of his appeal to the 32-team player representatives who elected him.

The football union has been hamstrung by internal conflict on a lot of issues lately. Smith doesn't carry any of that baggage or any baggage based on his relationship with Gene Upshaw who was criticized for becoming too close to the NFL commissioners that he worked with.

NORRIS: Now, a lot of money is at stake for the NFL. Surely, the players and the owners can find some way to share the pot.

FATSIS: Yeah. $7 billion a year business. And it should be easy, right? But where there's more money at stake, there are more difficult things to deal with. And the challenge for Smith will be how hard to press the players' hand.

He does have ties to the Obama administration and to Congress, and he apparently told the players that he could pressure NFL owners in bargaining by raising issues like the league's tax exempt status and its limited antitrust exemption.

One thing, though, that I was pleased to hear Smith talk about was the need to take better care of retired NFL players, players who suffer life-long injuries or early Alzheimer's or other ailments. I think that also appealed to the current players who elected him.

NORRIS: Now Stefan, I can't let you go without talking about the NCAA basketball tournament. Everyone right now is picking their brackets this week, including the sitting president, Barack Obama.

He invited an ESPN reporter to the White House yesterday, and he made his picks on this giant white board bracket. His winner was the University of North Carolina.

President BARACK OBAMA: The Tar Heels that are watching, I picked you all last year. You let me down. This year, don't embarrass me in front of the nation.

NORRIS: How about that for some added pressure for UNC?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FATSIS: Yeah. Good luck. I mean, listening to the president break down the field, though? He clearly follows this stuff closely, and he's got very strong opinions. You know, if he gets his energy level up a bit, I think he could definitely join the rest of us sports bloviators.

NORRIS: I think he's always happy to talk basketball.

FATSIS: Yeah.

NORRIS: That was Stefan Fatsis. Thanks so much, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That was Stefan Fatsis. His latest book is "A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL."

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