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N.F.L. Union Selects Lawyer as New Leader

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by Judy Battistia, New York Times

demaurice-smithDeMaurice Smith, a Washington-based white-collar criminal defense lawyer with no background in sports or labor law, was elected executive director of the National Football League Players Association on Sunday night. He defeated the former players Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong and the lawyer David Cornwell in the campaign to succeed Gene Upshaw, who died last August.

Smith, the fourth leader in the union’s 41-year history, was elected by a vote of the league’s player representatives, who were meeting in Maui.

His victory was a surprise; Vincent was thought to have secured the 17 of 32 votes required for victory leading into the meetings. It was also a departure for a union that had long been believed to favor a former player as its executive director. And it may be a sign of how concerned players are about the coming collective bargaining negotiations with team owners.

“The men here today made a decision to be unified to take a strong step forward to build upon the leadership of Mr. Upshaw and stand together as a family,” Smith told The Associated Press in Hawaii.

Smith emerged after about 90 minutes of voting, concluding a bizarre seven months in which the union, stunned by Upshaw’s unexpected death, was consumed by the vitriolic campaign to succeed him. The meeting in Maui mirrored the tenor of the search. According to one person briefed by someone at the meeting, it was frequently contentious and heated, with candidates clashing even over whether the election should be held by secret ballot or a roll call vote.

Vincent was perceived as being the front-runner heading into the weekend meeting. But on Saturday night, player representatives received a two-hour briefing on the detailed background checks performed on each candidate by an outside security firm. That briefing, said the person who had been told about the meeting, might have damaged Vincent’s candidacy because it addressed his controversial business dealings. The person said the findings did not reflect well on Vincent, to the surprise of some of his colleagues.

That might have opened the door for Smith, 45, a Washington native, a Redskins fan and a partner in the influential Washington law firm Patton Boggs. He has ties to President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Smith ran on a platform of having a comprehensive business plan — he has represented major corporations — emphasizing not only the collective bargaining agreement, but also marketing and licensing deals and relations with retired players, for whom Smith said the union has a “moral and business obligation.”

In his Saturday presentation to the player representatives, he also emphasized his expertise in dealing with Congress, which has oversight over the union and which could play a role if there is labor strife.

“We congratulate DeMaurice Smith and look forward to working with him and the N.F.L.P.A. board to ensure the continued health and growth of our game,” the league said in a statement Sunday night.

Vincent, who was once close to Upshaw and who was viewed as his hand-picked successor, was at the center of accusations — many of them made anonymously — about his personal conduct and how he ran his businesses. Upshaw and Vincent had a falling out months before Upshaw’s death when Upshaw suspected Vincent was attempting to force him out of the executive director’s job.

In recent months, supporters of Vincent have become convinced that Upshaw loyalists — and union employees who could lose their jobs — tried to undermine Vincent’s candidacy. Vincent was accused of prompting Congressional scrutiny of the search process and later of improperly releasing confidential information about player agents to a business associate. The union hired an outside attorney to investigate the claims about the release of agents’ information.

Upshaw led the union for 25 years. And though in later years he was criticized repeatedly for how the union treated retired players, Smith has big shoes to fill.

Upshaw’s signal achievement was winning free agency for players in 1993, leading to sustained labor peace. That peace is threatened, though, because the last extension to the labor contract Upshaw negotiated in 2006 was considered so favorable to players that owners opted out of it last spring. The stage is set for 2009 to be the final season with a salary cap. The deal will expire after the 2010 season if no extension is reached.

Owners have watched the divisive campaign with interest because a divided union would weaken its negotiating position at the bargaining table. Smith, as an outsider with no previous history with players, may have an easier time uniting the membership than Vincent or Armstrong could have.

Kevin Mawae, the union president and Tennessee Titans center, told reporters that the vote for Smith was “a legacy decision for the organization to move forward.”

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Written by Symphony

March 16, 2009 at 9:39 am

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