|Is Drew Brees being punished for his labor stance? The players union is watching closely. (Getty Images)|
If you're wondering, like many people across the NFL are, why exactly Drew Brees doesn't have a contract, you're not alone. But one of the smartest men in sports might have an answer, and what he says is a microcosm of where the NFL is now: union and owners once again reaching a healthy disdain for each other.
Union head DeMaurice Smith answers the Brees question with a history lesson. There's a name you may not know, and it's Sam McCullum, a former NFL player, and key union figure during the strike in the early 1980s. Despite being a very good player, once the lockout ended, McCullum was blackballed.
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This is a pattern that has repeated itself throughout the lengthy history of NFL labor strife. Player reps would take strong stances against owners and once the strike or other labor strife ended, those men never played again.
So while Smith stressed he had no intimate knowledge of the Brees contract situation, to him, he sees a pattern, he sees history. Brees is a member of the executive committee and was highly critical of the owners during the lockout. Smith is concerned history is repeating itself.
"The reality is our players pay the price when sacrificing for other players," Smith said in an extensive interview with CBSSports.com. "That's not a myth. That's history. Do we know that people in the league office were upset that Drew [attached his name to a Washington Post op-ed article about a case crucial to the lockout]? Yes. We're watching closely what happens to Drew."
To Smith, the union can't exist in a world where players might be punished if they participate in the NFLPA. To be clear, there's no proof the Saints are doing this, but almost everyone in football is completely puzzled why the Saints' most important player is sweating out a deal, especially at a time when the team needs a dose of positive news.
What would happen if the union ever found there was reasonable belief Brees was being punished for his union stance? Said Smith: "We would pursue every available recourse."
Again, the Brees situation, and Smith's feeling about it, is a microcosm for the larger relationship between the union and owners.
He won't touch this part, but I will: The union is headed in a different, and better, direction than when it was led by the late Gene Upshaw. With all due respect to Upshaw, that NFLPA conceded far too much power to the owners. That relationship was too cozy.
What Smith has been able to do is make the players more money than they've ever made before (and more guaranteed money) and do things like focus heavily on player safety while refusing to play the role as owner patsy.
This isn't your punk-ass union any longer.
Look at the clues. In places where the old union might have conceded, this one brawls. Union alleges secret television lockout fund. They fight. They prepare for divide-and-conquer attacks from owners by having, for the first time in union history, two quarterbacks on the executive committee, Brees and Matt Hasselbeck. There were 12 quarterbacks as player reps last year, another first.
They sue the NFL over salary cap collusion. More fighting.
Again, a good thing. Why? Another history lesson is in order. A simple one and Smith states it perfectly.
"In the history of union and management relationships when both sides had the power to fight equally, there was a middle ground," Smith said. "When one side had more power, the middle ground disappeared. If we didn't fight the NFL, they would crush us."
Now, this more aggressive union stance bothers some. When owners exercised their right to lock out the players, it received a more charitable reaction from many in the media, and among some fans, than when players use their tactics, like suing the owners over anti-trust issues. It's an interesting sociological study that in some ways is complex and in some ways isn't.
To call the relationship between the NFL and union strained is like calling the Atlantic Ocean deep. But I would again argue this is a good thing. Football will be played for a decade and in the meantime a competitive balance -- there is balance in the force, Obi-Wan -- will exist off the field as well as on it.
So, at least in this case, fighting is good.