Smith begins talks with Goodell

DeMaurice Smith wasted no time as the new NFL Players Association executive director, spending his first day on the job getting a start on labor talks with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and uniting the union ranks following a divisive seven-month search.

On Monday, less than 24 hours after he was elected, Smith had a brief phone conversation with Goodell and started putting together a transition team to assume the reins of North America's most powerful sports union as it approaches a critical juncture.

Smith, speaking on a telephone conference call with reporters, said it was his intention to use his initial conversation with Goodell as "our first conversation of the collective bargaining agreement."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello confirmed that Smith and Goodell had a brief conversation. Though he didn't offer details, Aiello said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that, "The commissioner congratulated him and said he looked forward to working with him."

The 45-year-old Smith, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, succeeds the late Gene Upshaw as union boss following an election by the league's 32 player representatives in Hawaii on Sunday night. He was hired to a three-year term.

Before returning home, Smith also planned to meet with the three other candidates that were up for the job, including former NFLPA president Troy Vincent, whom he hoped would play a role in his administration.

Vincent was open to the discussions and backed Smith as the union's new chief.

"We can move forward as one body toward the future with the new leadership of DeMaurice Smith," Vincent said. "I'm personally looking forward, as a retired player, to work with the new executive director and help him move the organization forward."

The other finalists were Trace Armstrong, another retired player and former NFLPA president, and sports attorney David Cornwell.

Labor talks are among the numerous challenges Smith immediately faces in becoming the fourth executive director in the union's 41-year history. NFL owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement last year, opening the possibility for labor strife if a new deal is not settled by 2011.

Compounding the importance of negotiations is an economic meltdown that may have an effect on the NFL heading into next season.

Smith said his goal is to maintain the labor peace that has allowed the NFL to emerge as "America's Game" over the past two decades. But he warned that he is also preparing for what he referred to as "war."

"There isn't a day where I don't hope for peace. But at the same time, there isn't a day where we won't prepare for war," Smith said. "So, as we move forward, I hope that our discussion with the owners is both early and fruitful. And it is my sincere hope that we can come to an agreement extremely quickly."

Smith also noted that labor strife would go beyond players and owners, mentioning those who work in concessions, parking and other areas that rely on the NFL for business.

"I don't want a lockout for our men. But I also don't want a lockout for the people who need those eight paychecks a year," Smith said. "Talks of things like a lockout, it hurts these men [players], but it also hurt a larger group of people, and we're mindful of that."

Owners argue that the current agreement is too favorable for players, who get about 60 percent of applicable revenues.

The NFLPA has countered, citing a union-commissioned study that showed the average value of the teams has grown from $288 million to $1.04 billion over 10 years, an increase of about 14 percent a year.

If a deal is not reached before the start of the 2010 season, the NFL salary cap will be lifted, providing teams no ceiling or minimums to sign players. Smith said he holds the same view as Upshaw, saying the union will "not go back" to a salary cap if it is removed.

Such a move would have the potential to hurt the NFL's competitive balance, allowing big-market teams to outbid their small-market counterparts in free agency. The move would also affect players, who would have to wait six years to become free agents, instead of four under the current system. No salary cap would also remove the minimum pay scale for players.

Another immediate challenge Smith must deal with is repairing the rift between the union and a group retired players, who feel disenfranchised over their poorly funded pension and medical plans.

Smith called it "a moral obligation" to address the concerns of retired players and noted that his transition team will include retired players.

"The one clear message that I've had from the first time we met until yesterday: We need to be one team, we need to be one locker room," Smith said.

Jim Acho, a Michigan-based attorney who has represented retired players in the past, expressed hope that Smith will enact change.

"Everything I've heard about Mr. Smith has been positive, and I'm hopeful that he will do right by the retirees," Acho said. "It is my sincere hope that DeMaurice Smith improves on the one key area where I think Gene Upshaw was derelict."

Smith was regarded as an outsider, having no ties to the union or NFL. His strengths included his connections to power, having ties to President Barack Obama and new U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

NFLPA executive committee member and Denver Broncos defensive back Brian Dawkins was considered a Vincent supporter during the search but expressed support for Smith.

"We're very, very pleased to move forward with who we see as a leader who can lead us in the right direction right now," Dawkins said. "I can't speak of how excited I am of the opportunity of going forward and the vision that he told us that he has for this organization to unify us, which we are right now, and to bring that same unity to the retired players so that we're all on the same page moving forward to be able to continue this beautiful game that we're all blessed to play."