When DeMaurice Smith was elected president of the NFLPA in March 2009, there was a pronounced surprise that the replacement for the late Gene Upshaw wasn't an ex-player but a former U.S. attorney. Now a little more than a year into his tenure, Smith is preparing for a lockout when the CBA expires after next season. We caught up with Smith in Washington, D.C where he was a guest on Edge of Sports radio.
Dave Zirin: Will there be a lockout?
DeMaurice Smith: That's what we're preparing for. I'm sorry to say that I don't have the kind of job, and the players don't have the kind of job, where we can just sit back and hope that a lockout doesn't happen. They have to prepare for the worst, certainly hoping for the best. We're trying to get a deal done. If you remember, right before the uncapped year, we said, look, we'll take a deal that's very similar to the deal we have now, let's just extend it. And the owners said no. I know that they've renegotiated every assistant coach's contract to envision a lockout, and I know their lead negotiator now is a guy named Bob Batterman, who locked out hockey for a year. They also negotiated every one of the television contracts, FOX, NBC, CBS and DirecTV with this in mind. They put a clause in those contracts to guarantee that the NFL gets every dime even if the games aren't played.
Zirin: So if there are no games they still get their TV money?
Smith: They get $4 billion. Chad Ochocinco asked me at the draft, on a scale of 1 to 10 where do you see the possibility of a lockout? I'd put it at about a 14.
Zirin: I spoke to an NFL owner who said the owners will always win against the players because players, even though they make a lot of money, live pay check to pay check. What do you think when you hear something like that?
Smith: We've asked players to save 25 percent of their salary last year, 25 percent of their salary this year. We created a guaranteed lockout savings account for every player in the league. But most importantly, we've just tried to prepare our guys. I've told them I want them to be a man and a businessman in the business of football. And for an owner to think he can break you, because you aren't being a responsible husband, father, son ... It's insulting. So the question will be, are they going to be right or are we going to be right?
Zirin: You've got a lot of reporters that say, "A pox on both their houses. It's millionaires versus billionaires." How do you make the case to say it's not just rich people squabbling, that there is something bigger at stake?
Smith: The first thing I do is challenge reporters on how much they know. When I was at the Super Bowl and I had a press conference with 120 or 130 reporters who covered football for years. I asked them raise your hand if you knew the National Football League was a non-profit organization? Silence. It is. It's a 501 C 6 non-profit. How many people know last year the National Football League generated $9 billion in revenue? According to Forbes every team averages $31 million in profit every year. Every team is worth $1 billion. And here's the kicker, over the last 15 years every team's value has grown by about 500 percent. So, that's the owner's side.
Now for the players, the average salary in the National Football League is $700,000. You will never find a player who's going to say we're crying in the poor house. I tell our players the reason you have to be responsible is that the average wage for a man between the ages of 21 and 24 in America is about $25,000. We should never be in a position where we have to give up based on money. That's insulting. But on our side of the table, the average career for a football player is 3.6 years. It takes you three years and three games in order to get five years of health care coverage when you're done playing. If you play any less than three years you don't get any health care coverage when you tire. If you play three years and three games, you still only get five years.
Zirin: What if you play 15 years?
Smith: Five years. If you play 13 years, it's five years; 12 years, it's five years. So you take a guy who graduates from college at 21, 22, the average career is 3.6 years, let's say he plays four years. Players are retiring at the ripe old age of 26, 27. Five years of health care coverage and everything after that, every injury you have is a preexisting condition. Try to find insurance for that. So when they say to me, it's a battle between billionaires and millionaires, that's where I start. But we also try to remind people that if we get locked out, we have 30,000 people who work in our stadiums. They're locked out. The concession workers and they people who are parking cars in the sleet and the rain for forth or fifth job, they're locked out. The bars and the restaurants that rely on football, they're locked out. The families of our players that rely on the health care, no health care. I don't really look at this as a battle between millionaires and billionaires. I look at this as a battle between 32 people who can unilaterally shut down our game, and America who digs it.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]