Toughest job of all sports union heads

Of all the leaders of major professional sports unions, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith clearly has the toughest job right now.

He faces NFL owners pushing for a potential lockout. Retired players still are unwilling to invest complete trust in him. Then there are the high expectations that come with being a hotshot lawyer who impressed the current players into giving him the job five months ago. Basically, Smith doesn't have the luxury of easing into his position. He has to hit home runs, early and often, over the first few years of his tenure.

So far, Smith has given every indication that he's up to that challenge, especially the one involving a possible lockout. Ever since he dazzled the union with his presentation on why he's ideally suited to lead them -- the players eventually elected Smith to succeed the late Gene Upshaw in March -- he's been roaming all over the country to spread the word of his agenda. Smith repeatedly has told players that his motto is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. He obviously wants the union to adopt that same attitude as collective bargaining negotiations with the league progress.

After all, this will be the first real test of Smith's ability to deliver on the promise that followed him into this job. The owners appear to be entrenched, fully believing that it was wise to opt out of the last collective bargaining agreement, which guaranteed the players 60 percent of designated revenues. The players, on the other hand, are just as adamant about not wanting to give up the benefits they fought so hard to achieve in the first place. As one Pro Bowl player (who wishes to remain anonymous) said: "It is starting to look like we're heading towards a lockout. But I hope the media picks up on the fact that the owners were the ones who walked away from the deal in the first place. We had a deal, and they decided it didn't work for them."

It's that fact that makes Smith's presence so vital to the players.

"This first negotiation for DeMaurice Smith is crucial because there is so much riding on this," said Oregon State English professor Michael Oriard, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1970 to 1974 and recently wrote a book titled "Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport."

"If they let this thing unravel into a lockout, they'll be shooting themselves in the hearts. But I think Smith knows that it would be better to not have it get to the point. The hard part for him is that you never want to go through your first negotiation and give up something you already have. So that's a tricky situation to face, and it will ultimately be one that defines him."

Though Smith (who was not available for an ESPN.com interview) is facing a major challenge here, he does have the kind of professional background that makes him a tough opponent for the owners. He was a partner at the prominent law firm Patton Boggs. His experience in both law and politics -- he has ties to President Barack Obama and once worked for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder -- was a strong selling point for the players. Remember, Upshaw was a proud man who got things done with passion and underrated savvy at the negotiating table. Smith clearly is more skilled in the areas of diplomacy, salesmanship and nuance.

Smith also has spent most of this offseason traveling to minicamps and offseason workouts to educate players on what's been happening. He has connected with plenty of his constituents on those trips.

San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson told me that Smith "is a lawyer who thinks like a player" and added that Smith is opening minds around the league.

"For so long, I didn't really want to get involved in that side of football," Tomlinson recently said in published reports. "You listen to De [and] it's very enlightening."

DeMaurice Smith isn't going to gain much by taking the hard line. And if the players have to back down at some point in this situation, I think he's savvy enough to know when that might be an option worth looking at.

-- Michael Oriard, author, Oregon State professor and former NFL lineman

It's that type of response that Smith has been trying to create everywhere he goes. As Oriard -- who in 1974 participated in the NFLPA's first strike, a 44-day walkout -- pointed out, the issue that always has undermined the NFL Players Association is unity. While the MLBPA always has stuck together in difficult times, the NFLPA has never been able to mount a unified stand for long. That lack of cohesiveness nearly killed the union during various strikes in 1974, 1982 and 1987. Smith's job is to keep player division from creeping into this fight.

It's also important that Smith adopt an approach that is productive over the duration of his reign. The major knock on Upshaw was always that he was too cozy with the league, even though he did accomplish plenty for the men he served. So it wouldn't be surprising for Smith to develop a working relationship with the league that is just as solid. He just seems too smooth and polished to operate with the same tough-guy, hard-line stance that marked the rule of baseball's recently retired union leader, Donald Fehr.

In fact, it's hard to see that mindset working in the current NFL.

"DeMaurice Smith isn't going to gain much by taking the hard line," Oriard said. "And if the players have to back down at some point in this situation, I think he's savvy enough to know when that might be an option worth looking at. The owners have a lot more leverage here because they're the ones with more wealth."

That ultimately is something Smith will have to consider as we move closer to the possibility of 2011's becoming the first appearance of a work stoppage in the league in more than 20 years.

Even if there is a lockout, the already deep-pocketed owners will still receive the $1 billion that DirecTV owes them for the 2011 season. That is a serious advantage in this situation. It gives the owners an upper hand that might prove tough to beat in the long run.

But Smith doesn't seem to be focusing on that right now. He's been pushing for every team to disclose its financial situation completely so he can see just how strapped the owners claim to be. He's been calling on every player to prepare for the possibility that the game might grind to a halt. And he's been steadying himself for the biggest -- and the first fight -- of his tenure as NFLPA executive director.

Look, the players would be the first to say they want to avoid a lockout.

As Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Nick Barnett said: "I would definitely be concerned because I wouldn't get paid. But I think the owners and the PA will come to some kind of agreement and it will be good for both sides. We don't want a super win over them, and we don't want them to have a super win over us. We want to be fair, and they want to be fair. We just need to find out what fair is."

Smith has to be hoping that type of rationality is apparent as this fight continues. He knew what he was signing up for, and he's willing to prove his mettle. But you also have to assume that his peers in other sports have to be thankful they're not in his shoes. After all, this is one heck of a way to start a career as the leader of a pro sports union.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.