Up Front

Jonathan Newton/Washington Post

The National Football League has a players union. Haven't ya heard? It includes a player from all 32 teams. There's even an executive board, and for far too long, that body has had the honor of rubber-stamping every league want and desire. However, on March 15, the membership selected DeMaurice Smith, a little-known but big-time DC attorney with no affiliation to sports whatever, as their executive director.

My money is on this choice meaning that maybe, just maybe, the guys who go out on the field -- the ones who literally bleed and break for their sport -- will finally have their say instead of being relegated to marching in lockstep with the league, performing the same moves as management, except backward and in cleats.


Now, before any of you goes off on a tirade -- "Damn, Stephen A.! Why did you have to go there?" -- here's a suggestion: Calm down! Spare me the sensitivity speech, and let Roger Goodell tell you when to eat, drink and sleep!

If you've followed the saga of the NFLPA to any degree, you've heard about all the kowtowing that takes place within the union. Example: Gene Upshaw, the union's late executive director, who died suddenly last August, was a Hall of Famer, a class act and a tough-as-nails fellow -- except whenever he had to face off against former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Time and again, players questioned if they had representation at all, seeing as how Upshaw and Tagliabue seemed tighter than Billy Ray and Miley. Players felt that the relationship muffled their concerns.

"They shouldn't feel that way now," Troy Vincent told me right after Smith was elected. He ought to know. Vincent is a former NFLPA president, and he was a finalist for the executive director post. "Clearly, the players care a great deal. Clearly, they want a voice at the table." Vincent points out that there were reps from every team in the room, listening to all the presentations, doing all their homework. They're pretty sure they chose the guy who is the best man for the job. "I have absolutely no problem with Smith as the choice," Vincent says. "And I wanted the job."

Strong words. Strong support. Now it's time for strong action from a strong leader.

Check the résumé. Smith -- beautiful name, by the way -- was a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office for 10 years and most recently a partner at the prestigious Beltway law firm Patton Boggs, where he concentrated on litigation and white-collar criminal defense. He possesses great listening skills and enough smarts to have assembled an A team of experts that impressed the union into giving him the job. The only knock on the 45-year-old seems to be that he never played ball after high school.

Well, he's back in the game now! "The NFL has enjoyed unprecedented success throughout the years," Smith told me. "And we all know the players have a lot to do with that." Very smooth. Allow Uncle Stephen A. to break that down for you: "Hey, owners! Time to pay the check!" That means the amount of player money guaranteed has to increase, and the league needs to step up when it comes to the health of its players, particularly where concussions are concerned. And something has to be done about pensions for scores of retired players. The way some former players, even former greats, are treated would be laughable if it weren't so appalling. While we're at it, let's put the league's arbitrary marketing tendencies on the table. It's a structure that blatantly favors only a few players. Can you really blame Chad Johnson for what he does? He's starving for the kind of attention nonfootball stars enjoy.

Smith said the union wants peace but will be prepared for war. And we all know what that means: the S-word. It's a harsh sentiment, even if the sentiment was left unsaid. Given that players are largely responsible for the elevation in the league's popularity -- and given that the PA, according to union sources, is sitting on a $200 million reserve -- Smith's bombast can be forgiven.

The bottom line? NFL players now have someone who is speaking for them -- not at them -- and perhaps that expectation will create a different kind of friction down the line. But for now they're ecstatic and eager for the next chapter to begin. No one cares that Smith was never in the league, so long as he has the game to compete with the NFL suits.