Smith could bolt NFLPA if he's denied bonus he feels he has earned

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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Smith is trying to change the union's culture, but he has run into resistance from some players. (Getty Images)  
Smith is trying to change the union's culture, but he has run into resistance from some players. (Getty Images)  

Could NFL Players' Association leader DeMaurice Smith, only months after heading the negotiations that led to the signing of the most lucrative labor deal ever for NFL players, soon walk away from the union?

The answer is a definitive yes.

Nothing is set, but my belief after speaking with a number of players is that Smith is growing weary of increasing drama within the union hierarchy and could opt to leave.

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If Smith quits -- or the players allow to leave -- it would be one of the dumbest things any sports union has ever done. While I think smarter and cooler heads will prevail in the end, it's becoming increasingly clear the tension could cause Smith to walk away.

We'll know more about Smith's potential departure soon. The executive committee might speak via conference call this week, and one of the main talking points could be the $1 million bonus Smith is scheduled to earn.

It's as simple as this. If Smith gets the bonus (more on the details of that bonus later) he stays. If the executive committee balks, I think he leaves and the union is thrown into chaos.

The fact Smith's negotiations have reached this point is amazing. Name a company this size that allows CEO bargaining to drag out in public. It's quite rare yet that's exactly what's happening here and it reflects poorly on the union.

Profootballtalk.com reported that there is a faction of players who don't want Smith back. His contract expires in March.

But this might be a matter of semantics. It's likely Smith would quit before he was fired.

Whatever the case is, it isn't unfair or an exaggeration to say that a union that was extremely unified against the owners during the lockout is now somewhat fractured over whether or not to keep Smith. It's dumb but true.

Smith could not be reached for comment and a spokesman for Smith would not speak on the matter.

This is typical of some of the egos associated with the NFLPA. It's long been a place in which the union head worked to protect players while some of the same players undermined that person protecting their interests. Players have often attacked players, and the late Gene Upshaw, the former union leader, often fought off challenges to his leadership. Many of those challenges were about Upshaw's salary.

Smith is trying to change the union culture, make it more professional, and he's being met with resistance from some players who don't want change and resent his attempts.

Yet it is Smith who was one of the catalysts for the new deal. Players have labor peace for a decade, improved health benefits, their bodies are more protected from training camp abuse, and they will make more money than ever. The television deal alone will generate some $7 billion a year for the next three years and players will get 55 percent of that.

They got a large chunk of the television money and were able to escape the trap of an 18-game season.

Could Smith have gotten more? Sure. But the owners weren't going to give the players everything. That's never happened and never will.

There's also this. One player representative told me there were very few players who ever vocally objected to Smith's actions both during the lockout and its tumultuous conclusion. "Maybe one or two, tops," the player said.

A former player representative involved in the negotiations, Chester Pitts, remembers that players told Smith that if he got the deal done, he'd get the bonus. "It was a promise to him," Pitts said.

"I don't see how anyone could be a Monday morning quarterback now that the deal is done," Pitts said. "I think there were things we could have gotten or ways to better the deal but I watched DeMaurice fight like hell. I find it crazy players would complain now when they have the chance to complain then and didn't.

"The thing that's unfair to DeMaurice is that he could have been much more compensated financially. He was doing a CEO type of negotiation while not making CEO money."

The issues with Smith center on two main things. First, his $1 million bonus. There are indeed some players balking at paying it. In actuality, the bonus isn't for just one year. It's for almost three years. Smith delayed his bonus payments from when he took over in March of 2009 until a new labor agreement was signed.

Second, Smith's idea has been to make the union resemble a more efficient corporate structure instead of its current model. Some players have resisted those efforts.

Smith has barely said a word publicly and the reason why, I believe, is to allow the players to decide on that bonus and future strategies on their own without any public pressure from him.

Will Smith leave? Again, cooler heads will likely prevail.

But this still could get ugly.

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